The Maillard Reaction, A Cook’s Best Friend

I’m willing to bet you are not only familiar with the Maillard (pronounced my-YAR) Reaction, you are probably a big fan. Do you love the smell of toast, bread baking or fresh coffee? How about the flavor of a perfectly grilled steak, roasted potatoes or popcorn?

If your mouth watered at thought of those (or almost any other roasted, toasted or fried food), you can thank the Maillard Reaction. Most cooks refer to this as browning or toasting, but it goes beyond that. If you understand this process it can have a huge impact on the flavor of the food you cook.

First things first, what exactly is the Maillard reaction? In the simplest terms it is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that typically results in a brown color and the creation of new (flavorful) compounds. Generally speaking it also requires heat of above 280 degrees fahrenheit (if you want all of the detailed science and chemistry behind this, check out this article from Science Direct). This reaction occurs best in low or no moisture environments

Why should I care, you might be asking. I’m not a chemist, I’m a cook. Well, many of those new compounds created in the Maillard Reaction produce glutamate. (I see you drifting off, stick with me the science is worth it). It turns out that our tongues can taste glutamate as a unique flavor that is separate from sweet, salty, bitter or sour. That elusive flavor is known as umami, and you experience it as savory or meaty. I’ll cover umami in more detail in a future post, suffice it to say that it is a unique flavor and our tongues have evolved to not only taste it, but like it.

So, how do I use this to improve my cooking you might be asking if you have stuck with me this far. Well, here are just a few examples:

  1. Boiling prohibits the Maillard Reaction. If you plan to cook meat or vegetables in a liquid (like a soup or in a crock pot), brown them or roast them first. Brown that pot roast in a big pan with a little olive oil before you put it in the slow cooker. Roast the potatoes and carrots in the oven before you put them into a soup.
  2. If you are going to put a sauce over chicken, pork chops, etc. make sure they have a chance to brown before you add the sauce. The liquid in the sauce will stop or prevent the reaction.
  3. Toast the bread for any sandwich and it instantly tastes better. If you don’t want a crispy texture on the bun or bread, toast only one side. Put the toasted side facing the middle of the sandwich.
  4. Try adding freshly toasted croutons or nuts (you can do this on a tray in your own oven at at 300-350 degrees) to a salad.
  5. Make sure your grill or pan is hot. Low and slow might prevent burning (that is the Maillard Reaction gone too far), but you need sufficient heat to get those beautiful browns.
  6. Say goodbye to boiled or canned vegetables. Put potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, broccoli, etc. in the oven with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt. Roasted perfection.

These are just a few examples. Trust me, this is one of those “secrets” they teach in culinary schools to future chefs. Now that you know the secret of the Maillard Reaction, look for ways to tweak your recipes to take advantage of this. Even basic ingredients can become gourmet with a little roasting or toasting.

Bob Holmes goes into much more detail in his book “Flavor, the science of our most neglected sense“, it’s an excellent book and easy to read.

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