What is the Maillard Reaction?

The Complete Guide To Preparing A Steak

Have you been wondering what exactly is going on with cooked food that makes them delicious? Well, that’s the Maillard reaction for you! You might not know it yet, but you are actually orchestrating this chemical reaction whenever you are baking toasty bread, concocting that rich and aromatic coffee, or charing that steak of yours.

The Maillard reaction is so common and so present in our everyday lives that we actually don’t pay much attention to it until we read it in cookbooks or hear it from our favourite cooking shows.

This reaction is named after the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard, who in 1912 published a scientific paper describing in detail the reduction of sugar and the reaction between amino acids during heating that resulted in discoloration or browning of the reaction mixture. This involves a complex process that initially baffled scientists but was later on explained and understood better.

Its existence has helped many practitioners of culinary science to make cooking more precise and consistent. This allowed for specific numbers to be computed and for recipes to be standardized in the food industry. Understanding this chemical reaction also allows culinary science to explore new ways to improve food quality and consumption.

So what do we know about this complex process?

Published scientific papers explain that the Maillard reaction is actually composed of many, simultaneously occurring chemical reactions that happen when sugar and proteins in food are transformed by heat. These reactions produce new aromas, colors, and flavors.  In layman’s terms, it is making food delicious!

This is what prompts us to slice into that steak, take a sip of that coffee or beer, or munch on that freshly baked cinnamon bread. Unlike our predecessors, we no longer devour raw and uncooked food after experiencing the bliss brought about by the Maillard reaction.

Culinary science has taught us about the complexity of eating. We have long ago evolved from the Palaeolithic age of consuming raw, uncooked food to satiate our hunger.

We now look at food based on its nutritional value and its safety for consumption. But the Maillard reaction is more than just the browning of the food. Although cooked meats, seafood and other protein-rich food do turn brown when subjected to heat over a prolonged period of time, there are in fact other reactions happening in that food that also cause browning.

How does this “browning” happen?

The Maillard reaction actually creates brown pigments in cooked food in a very specific way. It rearranges certain simple sugar and amino acids which then rearranges themselves into a collection of rings that reflect light in such a way that your food will give off that brown color. However, as the browning happens, we also notice that delicious aroma coming off that food.

The aroma oftentimes reminds us of grandma’s roasted chicken, our aunt’s special banana bread, or even that roadside fried chicken joint that we grew up with. With just one whip, our senses are alive and are actively searching for food that gives off that delicious aroma. The molecules in the food we are cooking will continue to react with each other, producing more changes to the food we are preparing.

Same reaction, different smell

You might be asking if cooking food produces the same chemical reaction, how come they all don’t smell the same? High-temperature cooking is responsible for speeding up the Maillard reaction. The hotter it is, the faster it is for water to evaporate and for chemical reactions to take place.

That is why we can easily smell food that is about to get burnt. However, different raw materials or ingredients are composed of different amino acids and forms of sugar that give off different aromas as well.

That is why grilled tuna will definitely smell different from a grilled Angus steak, and freshly roasted coffee beans will also smell entirely different from roasted malts for your beer.  The Maillard reaction or its absence, distinguishes grilled from boiled food and so on. The hotter it is, the faster it is for the Maillard reaction to take place.

So the next time you hear your favorite chef on TV talking about the Maillard reaction, don’t fret. He is just simply talking about that tiny bit of modern-day magic that goes into your favorite steak.