Why Every Cook Needs to Understand the Maillard Reaction

Push the color to the limit: browned food is flavorful food

We are often scared of burning things in the kitchen. We become nervous when food gets too dark or when something takes too long to cook.

The black color of burnt food has instilled in us a serious fear of color. But deep dark-brown — just teetering on the edge of black — is not, in fact, burnt. In the kitchen, the color brown is magnificent; it is the color of flavor, and it is the color that every cook should strive for.

A good sear on a piece of meat or fish, deeply caramelized onions, and brown crusty bread are all examples of the rich flavor of the color brown.

It was French chemist Louis Camille Maillard who first understood the science behind browned food when he discovered that the amino acids and sugars in food molecules change when food meets a temperature of 300 degrees F, transforming the color and developing new (awesome) flavor profiles.

An important part of the Maillard Reaction is that browning can only occur when food is dry. Water boils at a temperature of 212 degrees F, so browning can only occur in the absence of moisture.

For instance, caramelized onions only caramelize when the majority of the onion’s liquid has dissipated during the cooking process. When meat is set to be seared, it is critical to pat the meat dry before introducing it to heat. Otherwise, the protein will steam instead of earning that good dark-brown crust. Plus, the combination of hot oil and water is not safe, as the pan can spit and spatter and cause burns.

So, next time you are perusing down the bread isle in the grocery store, skip the lily-white baguette and go for something with good dark-brown color. Leave the pie in the oven just a touch longer to toast the crust. Be brave as you sear that steak and get that brown. Because brown is flavor. 

Rachael Pack is Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Instagram @rachael_pack