When we cook food, we want it to be as flavorful as possible. Two types of chemical reactions contribute to browning; both of these reactions create hundreds or thousands of other molecules, which then add aroma and flavor. The higher temperature reaction you may be familiar with: caramelization is the breakdown and reaction of sugars. The Maillard reaction occurs at slightly lower temperatures (still usually above the boiling point of water); this reaction occurs between the amino acids of proteins and sugars.
Both of these reactions are so complex that scientists don’t know everything that occurs during them. We understand the basic nature of each reaction, but any plant or animal food contains literally thousands of different molecules that can all react together. Fortunately, we can still implement the process without a full understanding (and we have been for millennia), and a lot of very nice foods undergo either or both reactions.
- Beer- when barley is malted, water is added to induce germination. It must then be dried and toasted. If it is toasted while still wet, caramelization will occur more. If it is dried first and then toasted, the Maillard reaction will occur more. Higher temperature toasting produces more color. Black malt is produced at such a high temperature that one must be careful to avoid combustion.
- Baked goods- the brown crust on your bread, pretzels, and cookies is courtesy of the Maillard reaction.
- Coffee- the roasting of coffee involves the Maillard reaction
- Molasses- the process of making molasses involves caramelization
- Meat- that nice brown on your steak from the grill involves the Maillard reaction
The Maillard reaction and caramelization often occur at the same time, and produce similar results visually, so they can be tough to separate. If something contains both proteins and sugars, both reactions can occur with heat. Fortunately, they both taste good. They’re also easy to do at home. If you want to brown your food, get a skillet nice and hot. Make sure you’ve patted the food dry (this allows the surface to get hotter than the boiling point of water, thus allowing the reactions to occur), and sear away.