The Maillard Reaction

Sometimes I’m a huge geek. Want proof? Last weekend I watched a 90 minute documentary on two gentlemen battling to get the world record for highest King Kong score. I found it completely fascinating.

Betsy didn’t think it was funny when I asked her if I could purchase an old school King Kong arcade game and play it for 4-6 hours a day. She didn’t think it was funny because I’ve been known to take up crazy ventures exactly like that. In fact what you’re reading right now is one of those crazy ventures!

Don’t worry, this has a point.

The point is that I tend to get excited by what a lot of people consider lame. That’s why my biggest time suck ever is Wikipedia – especially when it comes to food. If I’m looking at something on Wikipedia I find that I click and click and click and an hour later I’m reading about something not at all related to what I was trying to research!

I guess that’s called learning. Or procrastination.

Sometimes these topics are small, but occasionally I’ll Wiki-across some huge subject that I’ve never heard of.

That’s what happened a few days ago when I was on the Wikipedia Beer page. I was reading along and then I came across the fermentation section. So… click! Now of course fermentation isn’t possible without yeast which is just a click away. And as we all know, yeast makes bread. And bread of course, develops a crust because of the Maillard Reaction.

Wait? What was that last bit?

And so I clicked on it. It turns out that this little bit of chemistry discovered by French Chemist Louis-Camille Maillard in the early 1900s is responsible for what I consider to be 90% of delicious foods and I’d never even heard of it.

What’s the Maillard Reaction?

I’m not going to get into the intense chemistry behind this subject frankly because I’m not a chemist and I don’t want to screw it up! If you’re a chemistry dweeb, then you can check out this article which has tons of fun molecular drawings detailing the subject.

If you’re a laymen, what you need to know is that The Maillard Reaction is a basic reaction between amino acids (proteins) and sugars and it almost always requires heat. The result is varying degrees of browning and also changes in texture and, you guessed it, flavor.

What Things Need It?

Any food can be burned. But there are a few delicious things that wouldn’t be possible without this process. Things like crusty bread, seared meat, charred vegetables, food flavorings, and guess what, even that self-bronzer that you buy when you go as an Oompa-Loompa for Halloween. They all need that reaction between amino acids and sugars to create the desired affect.

Brown Food Tastes Good!

Anne Burrell who hosts the Food Network show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, always says that “Brown Food Tastes Good!” And she’s totally right.

A seared browned steak is worlds better than a gray one.

A crusty loaf of bread is better than if you just let the dough dry out at room temperature.

There’s really no need to go into detail on why exactly brown food tastes good. All you need to know is how to get it!

Tips for Maximizing your Maillard!

Here’s a few tips that can help maximize the Maillard reaction when you’re cooking. These may seem like common sense, but if you keep them in mind as you cook, you’ll be sure to get some delicious browned food.

Dry Food. Water is the enemy of brown food. Any time you’re cooking something like chicken or steak, pat it dry with a paper towel first. If you don’t dry the food the heat has to evaporate all the water before it can get down to the reacting business.

High Heat. This reaction doesn’t usually happen until the material reaches at last 300 degrees. You want to get it to that temperature as soon as possible so crank it up!

– Don’t Touch. When you move your food, you take it off the heat even if just for a second. That stops the process and will slow it down. Leave your food untouched as it sizzles and browns and you’ll be happier with the result.

When Have I Used It?

Well, all the time obviously. But I wasn’t sure what to scientifically call it until just now! Here are my Ten Favorite Macheesmo Maillard Reaction posts!

So know that you know the name for this wonderful thing, what’s your favorite dish involving The Maillard Reaction? Leave a comment. Leave a link!

17 comments on “The Maillard Reaction

  1. King of Kong! I freaking LOVED that movie. If you're into weird pop-culture-y documentaries, you should try Word Play (crossword puzzles!), Word Wars (Scrabble tournaments!), Helvetica (the font!), and Man on Wire (renegade tight rope walkers!).

    That said, my favorite maillard reaction happens on a steak because it's so simple but it makes such a profound difference.

  2. Man on Wire is an amazing film, it is a must see. King of Kong was also awesome. I'd also recommend, though not a documentary – but based on a memoir – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

    I think my favorite maillard reaction is on seared duck breast, as it can be so amazing.

  3. I made some scallops from Simply Recipes that used the Malliard Reaction. Apparently I'm not into blogging these days? So they are the last post on my blog.

    Also, King of Kong was fascinating. I love documentaries too. There was one I saw a few months ago about LARPers called Monster Camp. I think you would like it.

    Finally, I was wondering if you subscribe to Cooks Illustrated. Someone gave me a subscription to it for a wedding present (I know. I have awesome friends!) and it is right up your alley. It's all food testing and scientific stuff. Check it out.

    1. I do subscribe! I love it. It's one of my favorite publications… I'm not a huge fan of their constant marketing and god forbid you get on their email list…

      But yea… their magazine is THEBOMB.COM.

  4. the browned top of a lasagna or mac and cheese!

    also kill screens haha. I kill screened my treadmill the other day.

  5. My all time favorite Maillard reaction is crème brulée! Sometimes when we have dinner parties and that's our dessert, I'll call people into the kitchen to talk about the Maillard reaction and carbon chains while firing up my blowtorch. It's so much fun!

  6. I'd have to go with grilled fillet and scallops! Double the malliard reaction, double the fun! Alton Brown had a good special on this once with all of his props, great show.

  7. “That’s what happened a few days ago when I was on the Wikipedia Beer page. I was reading along and then I came across the fermentation section. So… click! Now of course fermentation isn’t possible without yeast which is just a click away. And as we all know, yeast makes bread.”

    So you mean to say every fermentation process requires a yeast? How about fermenting a vegetable? Does it still requires a yeast?

    Best Regards,
    Annie H. James

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