How to make your food smell and taste better
the Maillard reaction explained
and your French foodie vocabulary increased at the same time !
What is the ‘Maillard reaction’ ?
meat browning over high heat
Those smells that make you crave for a taste, when you get a wift of coffee roasting, or bread crusts browning during a bake, or onions browning, steak searing or grilling. To be fair, the savoury maillard reaction creates more of the taste than the aroma, it’s quite often the fat on the meat, or the oil or butter in cooking that contributes to the aroma. And when you taste it, it has that very unctuous yumminess we all know well.
Starting sous vide cooking got us on to the subject of how to get the most flavour from our food. With sous vide you already retain the nutrients, texture and flavours so much more than traditional cooking. However, you often need to finish meat off anyway and this gives you a chance to add even more flavour and aromas. Chefs do this so naturally, and they is a lot of chit chat among them about what foods should be seared before, after, or before and after cooking in order to get the absolute best flavours.
The Maillard reaction is referred to so much by chefs, so we thought we would get behind the scenes on that and decipher it for us all !
So what’s the science behind why your food turns brown?
The distinctive tastes that we love….. and it’s all down to a sequence of reactions ( chemical reactions). It was first noted as a ‘thing’ over 100 years ago by the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. Hence the name Maillard reaction and Maillard browning that keep popping up.
Maillard reactions are partly what give us the golden brown we love on crisps and chips ( French fries), roast potatoes… especially triple cooked ones!. It’s responsible for Dulce de leche, yummy roasted almonds, Sunday roasts, toasted marshmallows, malted breads and drinks like whiskey and beer ( yes we learned tasted that malty yumminess at the Heineken factory in Amsterdam! ) We could go on… are you licking your lips yet?
All this is mostly due to the chemical reaction takes place between the proteins ( amino acids ) and sugars ( reducing sugars that is, not complex ones like castor sugar.) That gives the unami aroma and flavour that is the Maillard reaction.
We see it mostly in proteins like meats because a protein is made up of one or more linear chains of amino acids ( each of which is called a polypeptide apparently – I had to include this information because the word polypeptide used to always tickle us when it popped up on an ad on the telly…I thought it was made up… now what ad was that, I’m sure it was on a shampoo! Leave a comment if you know.
So it’s complex !
In the process of this reaction, hundreds of different flavour compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavour compounds, and so on. Each type of food has very distinctive flavour compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. This in fact is how scientists create artificial favours – they invite certain proportions of amino acids and reduced sugars to the party and let them get on with the never-ending creation of flavours. So is this how the ‘bisto‘ flavour is created artificially?
More French culinary terms
just means pour some liquid into the very hot cooking pan to get up all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Those brown bits are where all the flavors are, and it is called “fond.”
French for “base, background or sauce”, and more often it’s used to describe the browned food bits you find at the bottom of the cooking pan when roasting or grilling meat. The fond is full of concentrated flavour created by the Maillard reactions in the cooking of the meat. We like to call this ‘dripping’.
gravy, or pan sauce
Ah Bisto… the gravy revelation
What a Revelation! Now we know makes a GRAVY such a cracking product ! To make gravy, the essential part is to deglaze the pan you have been cooking the meat in. Basically gravy is made with the drippings or ‘fond’, from the cooking or roasting of meat. The meat proteins and sugars create the Maillard effect and the yummy brown bits that drop to the bottom of the pan are the Maillard brownings that need to be scraped up (every last morsel) with hot liquid (water or stock) and whisked through to blend.
Next boil the liquid down over a long time to make a reduced sauce or jus, a reduction or demiglace (whilst we are on the French language lesson), to reduce it down to a delicious gravy.
Dripping is so tasty that even the dripping sandwich is making a comeback. An Irish breakfast isn’t the same with the potato bread or just bread even, fried in the dripping or fond that the sausage and bacon cooking has made. Another great use for the dripping is with potatoes, to create the ultimate tasting roast potato.
It’s not all about the browning of food.
It seems that browning is just a by product of these chemical reactions and it’s the flavour and aroma that are the main results.
The browning we get is pretty complex, it just so happens that Maillard reaction in meats causes it to go brown but mostly browning can also be caused by chemical reactions, like carmelisation for example.
Maillard vs Carmelisation vs Enzymatic browning
Camelization browning is completely different reaction to the Maillard browning, although it can be hard for us to tell which is mostly responsible for the browning.
Caramelization is simply a change in the chemical composition of certain sugars, also at a really high temperature, also known as the oxidation of sugar at a high temperature. So if you have a high sugar content in your food and are cooking it quickly ( sometimes with a little water) at very high temperatures ( eg biscuit baking), then you can see how it can be confused with Maillard.
So quite often both processes occur when cooking or baking, and they can work well together giving complimentary flavours and smells.
Carmelisation happens at an even higher temperature required for Maillard, so really for foods cooked at a very high temperature ( e.g. 350℉) the Maillard effect can sometimes be secondary to the carmelisation process.
Under boiling point, Maillard reactions can still happen but just take a lot longer, and as the temperature lowers, as long as the conditions are very alkaline then it can still deliver the maillard results.
Similarly at the other extremes, at very low temperatures, enzymatic browning can be the primary reason for browning (think of an open avocado or apple browning). It’s not all bad though, think of dried fruit created by this process over time ( grapes to raisons), and how coffee beans going brown over time contribute to a more intense flavour.
So let’s simplify how to get the best maillard reactions.
First of all, we need to remember that there are many many different reactions that can occur between the amino acids and sugars. So many, in fact, that there will be many different results too… in the tastes and smells that you get. It all comes down to the type, and the quantity of amino acids and sugars that are present in the food itself, as well as the following key elements.
You need the right combination of...
usually needs to be high
Chefs debate at which point the food starts to show the Maillard effect but its somewhere above 300℉ lets say, carmelisation kicks in at an even higher temperature yet. Be careful going above 180℃ (355°F) incase you burn the food. This is scientifically known as PROLYSIS. This is when it goes black and can also be carcinogenic.
low temperature maillard !
Some say you can still create the maillard technique with lower temperatures, longer times and lots of moisture – beer for example ( the malt gets its flavor by boiling for several hours), Balsamic vinegar is another example, as is seranno ham and some cheeses that ripen to give distinctive aromas and flavours over a long long time. As we said above though, Maillard is probably a secondary process responsible for these results.
So the minimum temperature is a debatable subject among chefs.
The sous vide cooking process in itself intensifies the flavour of foods it cooks, but not through the maillard technique. So to get the maillard reaction and you have to sear afterwards. For some meats, it’s also highly recommended to sear the food before sealing it in the sous vide machine, so that it kick starts the maillard process early and intensifies the flavour even further.
The results of the Maillard will vary depending on the length of time you cook at your chosen temperature.
Also, with the recommended high temperature, it needs to be fast, so that you don’t start to overcook the product inside too.
You want to have the surface of your food as dry as possible.
Most searing is performed very fast, in a minute or so, and at very high temperatures, and in that case you want the product to be as dry as possible.
If it has a lot of liquid then the temperature can’t really get above boiling point so its hard to get the Maillard effect. So its also good to prime your meat before searing it.
Maillard reaction ( the flavour and aroma) happens much more easily at neutral pH or higher, so acidic conditions will significantly inhibit the process, whereas alkaline will encourage it.
So we know that the Maillard reaction requires proteins and a reducing sugar. However the PH level of the food (well the outside of the food that you are searing for example) matters hugely!
It’s a well known fact in the chef world that adding baking soda to the cooking raises the food’s pH (making it more alkaline), which also helps.
Make sure your meat usually is dry by blotting it with kitchen roll to soak up any external dryness before searing. Alternatively dry it at a low temperature in the oven, or leave it to dry in the fridge for several hours.
You often see chefs excessively salting their meat well before cooking it. The salt draws out the water, and, the absorbed salt has the added benefit of tenderising the meat. Hmm wouldn’t that make it too moist again though – so be sure to do that early, and leave the meat in the fridge ( best overnight!)
It’s not necessary, but apparently cooks often marinate meat or seafood in mixtures containing egg white or baking soda just before stir-frying.
Be careful though because at very high temperatures, a potential carcinogen called acrylamide can be formed.
What is your favourite ‘mailard’ meal
I, Aoibheann, love some ( not all! ) sweet and savoury combinations. I’m not a huge fan of Pastilla, (though Paul is), where the chicken or fish and ground almonds where the sweet part isn’t caramelised ! However it must be down to each element having the maillard reaction individually before plating up, that makes the combinations I like.
Are you a fan?
Pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for example is a surprisingly good combo. Fried chicken and waffle with syrup is another! Now I understand also why I like dates wrapped in bacon, or dates and cheese combo. You have the slow low temperature maillard in the cheese and dried fruits, and the fast high temperature reactions in the meats, and carmelisation in the syrups.
Fabulous to understand this finally, and hopefully it will make me more adventurous in the kitchen and when choosing off a menu!
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