The Maillard Reaction: The Chemical Process That Makes All Food Taste Better

The Maillard Reaction might sound like a complicated chemistry lesson, but if you cook regularly, you most likely have already experimented with this chemistry in your own kitchen. The Maillard Reaction is essential to most foods we cook, whether it be as simple as toasting our bread in the morning to roasting a leg of lamb in the evening.

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Chemistry Creating Deliciousness

Simply put, the Maillard reaction is a series of chemical reactions that results when protein and carbohydrates or sugars are exposed to heat. It’s easy to recognize these reactions, as they create both the delicious browning color in food—think crusty baked bread, roasted coffee, or seared steak—and the resulting flavor and aroma compounds that go with it. The resulting taste adds umami to our dishes, lending more depth and oomph to the finished product.

Why do we like this type of food? We’ve evolved to be attracted to food we can digest easily and that we recognize as nutritious and safe. The Maillard reaction sends us exactly those signals. So, next time you see a crispy piece of bacon or a golden loaf of bread, you can blame biology for eating it.

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Dry + Heat = Maillard

All foods that are cooked aren’t going to have this reaction. You won’t see the Maillard Reaction occur while you’re boiling, poaching, or steaming. What separates these processes is the temperature at which they occur—Maillard only happens above the boiling point, higher than 140°C /285°F. For this high heat reaction to occur, the food typically has to be fairly dry so that the surface water molecules evaporate quickly, causing the familiar sizzle we associate with searing meats. The boiling point in a normal environment will happen at 100°C/212°F, which is too low of a temperature for this reaction to occur quickly.

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A low temperature and a wet environment can also create the Maillard reaction, but this requires much more time; for example, a French onion soup cooks for several hours, whereas a steak cooks in several minutes.

Caramelization is a reaction that is easily confused with the Maillard reaction. While the two present themselves similarly, in that they both create browning of food through a dry, heated process, caramelization requires only the burning of sugar molecules, rather than protein.

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Try it Tonight

Want to see this chemistry in action? What we’ve learned so far is that the Maillard reaction happens best with a dry surface and heat, so if you’re searing or roasting meat, pat it dry with paper towels before cooking, or salt it an hour before cooking to draw excess moisture out.

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For best results, combine the two techniques in a process called dry-brining. If you’ve got extra time on your hands, salt that meat, stick it back in the refrigerator overnight, and then cook. Your meat will now have the perfect surface for Maillard to happen. Depending on the molecular composition of the food you’re applying this method to, this reaction can bring out more umami, malt, or earthy flavor. Try for yourself and let us know!