As a chef, you're always looking for rich savoury flavours. The so-called Maillard reaction has a great influence in this regard. In simple terms, this reaction results in the browning of food. The reaction gives products new aromas, colours, structures, and flavours. So how do you bring about this reaction? Are all Maillard reactions alike? How can you influence it? Can the reaction be reversed? Succinct answers to these questions can be found below.
The Maillard reaction is named after the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard. Circa 1910, he described the various reactions that took place between carbohydrates and amino acids in combination with heat and the influence of these reactions on food.
Cooking is science
All kinds of processes take place during cooking – that we all already knew. One of the most important processes is the Maillard reaction. To help you understand what happens during this reaction, we will just set out the basics here; whole books could be written about it. It is important to know that the change in colour can also take place at room temperature. This is what creates the dark colour and wonderful aromas during the ripening process of balsamic vinegar, for example.
The following are required to bring about a Maillard reaction:
- A carbohydrate – a free sugar or starch-bound sugar: granulated sugar, glucose, flour, corn, etc.
- An amino acid – these are found in proteins, i.e. in meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, etc.
- Temperature – in principle, any temperature will work, but the lower the temperature, the slower the reaction, and the higher the temperature, the faster the reaction.
There is not just one type of Maillard reaction, as the observant reader will have concluded from the title. There are so many different kinds of amino acids and carbohydrates, each with a unique composition, and the reactions between them can be very different. If we then also factor in higher or lower temperatures, there are even more variations.
A Maillard reaction cannot be reversed, so make sure it is what you want to achieve.
The theory is all well and good, but I want to see it, feel it, taste it! We understand. Here are a few examples that you probably see on a daily basis in the kitchen:
- Frying and grilling meat or fish
- Roasting vegetables
- Baking bread
Grilling a product changes its appearance and, more importantly, its taste. The grilled taste is due to the Maillard reaction. The sugars caramelise, amino acids are released from the proteins, and together they create aroma, colour, structure, and taste. Take griddled green asparagus, for example. The high-temperature cooking gives them their distinctive aroma and attractive dark brown stripes.
Another often-cited example is freshly-baked bread. Before baking, the dough is pale. The temperature of the oven transforms it into a fragrant, beautifully brown crunchy loaf. A Maillard reaction can be seen in the crust of bread.
Maillard reactions can be seen everywhere. We can't mention them all in this blog post. Take a look at our technique pages for grilling and frying in a frying pan for more examples. Not yet a member? No problem. Try Gastronomixs for 14 days with no obligation.