The Maillard Reaction – aka Golden Brown Delicious
Cody Ruch, Spice Science
One of my favorite parts of cooking is the Maillard reaction. Although you may not have heard of it, it is something we are all familiar with. It often gets called “browning” or “the browning reaction”. Since the color change isn’t the important part of this, these nicknames should be changed to “the flavor reaction”, or “Golden Brown Delicious”(my personal favorite). It isn’t named after the mallard duck, but a properly cooked mallard should exhibit the Maillard reaction. In 1912, a French chemist and physician whose interest in the metabolism of urea(an amide produced by the liver) and kidney illnesses led him to study the reaction between amino acids and sugars. Because of his research in this field, the Maillard reaction was named in honor of Louis Camille Maillard. 1
WHAT IS THE MAILLARD REACTION, REALLY?
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that happens when food is heated above about 140 °C, or 285 °F. 2 When food reaches these temperatures, the reactive carbonyl group of the sugar interacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acids, resulting in a wonderful change in aroma and flavor. This is not to be confused with caramelization, so don’t go adding sugars just to get a nice G.B.D! Caramelization and the Maillard reaction are both forms of non-enzymatic browning. 3 Caramelization doesn’t involve amino acids, but since many foods naturally have sugar, sometimes products of both caramelization and the Maillard reaction are present. 4
Though flavor chemists have been experimenting with creating natural flavorings using the Maillard reaction, the myriad flavor and aroma compounds that result from the Maillard reaction aren’t well understood. 5
The basic progression of the Maillard reaction is this: carbonyl groups of sugar react with nucleophilic amino groups and create glycosylamine and/or other Schiff bases. These undergo the Amadori rearrangement and turn into ketosamines. These degrade into reactive carbonyl and dicarbonyl compounds. These compounds react with remaining amines in the Strecker degradation, producing Strecker aldehydes. Many of the compounds mentioned continue to break down and produce furfurals, reductones, and melanoidins, resulting in flavor, aroma, and color changes. 6
Tips for creating the Maillard reaction
Don’t cross the line between browning and burning! When food is left too long in temperatures above 165 °C (330 °F) the sugars will undergo pyrolysis. While a little bit of this reaction can be desirable, if you take it too far you’ll ruin your meat, and nobody wants that. 7
Water is also an important part of the Maillard reaction. Because water cannot reach the temperatures required to begin the chemical reaction without vaporizing. One of the reasons why I promote the reverse sear method of grilling meat is that while the cut is on the low and slow step the moisture on the surface dries up, enabling the Maillard reaction to begin as well as preventing water from boiling inside the surface of the meat and causing that gross grey flavor and color. Again, nobody wants that. Dry-brining 15-20 minutes before grilling is a great way to help get the moisture out of the surface, maintain the moisture in the center, and set yourself up for that perfect Maillard reaction. 8
One factor that can help you achieve the Maillard reaction is the pH level. This is why baking soda is often added to recipes, to increase the alkalinity and help the Maillard reaction produce many different delicious compounds. 9
Another useful hack is pressure cooking. Water cannot reach temperatures above 100 °C while in sea-level atmospheric pressure, and even less at higher altitudes (lower pressures) because it vaporizes before it can reach a higher temperature. Pressure cooking can allow the water to reach temperatures above 100 °C, which can allow the Maillard reaction to begin despite there being a lot of moisture. The addition of moisture allows the reactive compounds to continue reacting instead of going into pyrolysis. In other words, the flavor gets locked in and you’re less likely to burn your food.
Understanding the Maillard reaction is a key factor in being able to control the variables of different recipes. Knowing the science behind why food does what it does when we are cooking enables us to reproduce our culinary experiments with the precision needed to tailor any dish to its peak flavor. Keep experimenting, writing it down as you go and noting the flavor differences. Get creative and change things up, one at a time. This way when that magical combination presents itself in a mouthwatering dish you’ll crave again and again, it’s easy to reach that same result every time.
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814698000752, / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavorist
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maillard_reaction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strecker_degradation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amadori_rearrangement,
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schiff_base, https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/the-marvellous-maillard-reaction/3009723.article