What is the Maillard reaction (and why do I care)?

By
Hannah Koelmeyer
Added
10 April, 2014

You may have heard this term bandied about by food boffins like Heston Blumenthal, so what is the Maillard reaction and what’s it for?

What is the Maillard reaction?

Scientifically speaking, the Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and simple sugars in protein-laden foods that occurs with the application of high heat (generally above 140°C). Basically, it’s what’s happening when you’re browning meat in a hot frying pan, cooking chips in a deep fryer or making toast. Also known as the ‘browning reaction’ you can tell that the Maillard reaction has occurred because the parts of the food directly exposed to heat will change colour and become crisp, and you’ll start smelling delicious, mouth-watering food aromas (think freshly-baked bread, roasted coffee beans, the delicious smell that wafts out of a steak restaurant).

And why do I care?

Because the Maillard reaction is all about FLAVOUR. When the chemical reaction occurs it produces hundreds of new flavour compounds, which results in the difference between the subtle flavours present in steamed pumpkin, and the rich intensity of roast pumpkin with all of those delicious chewy almost-burnt bits that get stuck to the bottom of your roasting pan. Those delicious almost-burnt bits? That’s the work of the Maillard reaction.

Understanding and exploiting the Maillard reaction is the secret to cooking juicy, flavour-packed meat. The key is to utilise and maintain high temperatures to create a delicious, intensely-flavoured outer crust without over-cooking the inside. Simple ways to do this are cooking steak the way Heston recommends: in a smoking-hot pan and turning every 15-20 seconds to keep up the outer temperature; and when you’re roasting, cook for longer at a lower temperature, but finish in a super-hot oven for about 10 minutes to get a delicious crispy outer layer.

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