What Is the Maillard Reaction?

We all know that a piece of toast tastes better than a piece of bread, a charred sausage better than a boiled sausage, and that darker roasted coffee beans pack more flavor in a cup than a light roast. The Maillard reaction is to thank for that. Chemists have discovered the Maillard reaction develops thousands of flavors on foods, and with that, matching aromas to follow. Adding a Maillard reaction component to your recipe could be just what it needs to take the dish from simply edible to something worth remembering.

toasted grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of mac and cheese

Maillard Reaction Definition

The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction that occurs between reduced sugars and protein in amino acids when food is heated. This reaction imparts a complex taste to the surface of foods that are roasted, seared, charred, or toasted.

Maillard Reaction Pronunciation

Maillard is pronounced as “my-ard”, and is named after the French chemist Louis Camille Maillard, who figured out the science behind the Maillard reaction in 1912.

Which Foods Are Affected by the Maillard Reaction?

beef steak with fork

The foods that are affected by the Maillard reaction have both protein and sugar molecules present. Here are a few examples of food that are affected by the Maillard reaction:

  • Bread - develops a darker and thicker outer crust
  • Eggs - creates a brown lining and crackled edges
  • Meat and Fish - sears on a fine, crunchy brown outer coating
  • Beer - malts are roasted to various degrees and added into the brewing process
  • Coffee - coffee beans are roasted before grinding to achieve various coffee notes
  • Chocolate - cacao beans are roasted after being fermented and dried to add specific chocolate notes
  • Soy Sauce - wheat berries are roasted before being ground and added to soybeans, water, salt, and koji

There are different types of Maillard reaction compounds you can end up with based on how long you cook food and at what temperature, as well as the kinds of sugars and proteins that are in the reaction. Certain reactions will cause sweet, nutty, and caramel notes on products like cacao beans, coffee beans, and bread. Other reactions will produce meaty, smoky, and earthy flavor notes, mostly found on meat, fish, and sometimes even beer.

Other times, the Maillard reaction doesn’t add new flavors at all but will instead enhance the other flavors that are already present in the food products. The Maillard reaction will, however, always produce a beautifully crispy texture and golden brown color - a culinary duo that is timeless.

How to Achieve a Maillard Reaction

Now that we know the delicious effects the Maillard reaction can have on our food, let’s talk about the best way to get a Maillard reaction:

1. Pat It Dry

The Maillard reaction works best on very dry foods. Otherwise, you’re simply steaming your food. Make sure your meat and fish have their excess moisture patted dry to achieve a nice sear. If roasting coffee beans or cacao beans, they should be completely dry as well.

2. Make A Wash

two large cooked soft pretzels

A wash containing both sugars and amino acids can greatly enhance the Maillard reaction for meat, fish, and bread.

  • Meat and Fish: Once the excess moisture has been dabbed away, make a wash that contains reducing sugar (such as corn syrup or invert sugar) and baking soda. Baking soda increases the pH of amino acids, making them more eager to react. Mix the two together and brush onto the meat before browning.
  • Breads: When a recipe calls for an egg wash, do not skip this step. A thin layer of egg wash (one egg whisked with one tablespoon of milk) will achieve a nice, even Maillard reaction thanks to the sugars and protein found in both eggs and milk.
  • Pretzels: If you’ve eaten a traditional German pretzel before, then you’re familiar with the mahogany, chocolate-brown color, beautiful sheen, and iconic pretzel flavor that they have. That’s because traditional German pretzels are dunked in something called a lye solution (food-grade lye mixed with water) before being baked. Lye is an alkaline, another reactant that will increase the pH in amino acids, causing a Maillard reaction.

3. Turn up the Temp

The optimal temperature to achieve the Maillard reaction sits between 284-330 degrees Fahrenheit (140-165 degrees Celsius). When food reaches 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Celsius), the Maillard reaction starts to burn/char the food, so keep a close eye on when the Maillard reaction’s browning starts.

4. Extend the Cooking Time

freshly baked sourdough bread loaf with slices

Have you ever been to a bakery, looked at the bread display, and noticed that the sourdoughs’ crusts varied in their shades? This appearance has nothing to do with how the sourdough was made, but rather how long it baked. The lighter sourdoughs were taken out of the oven a bit sooner, while the darker ones benefitted from a longer Maillard reaction time in the oven. Therefore, the darker sourdoughs will contain more flavor and a deeper aroma.

Maillard Browning

As we know, the Maillard reaction can only be achieved when amino acids and sugars are present in food. But how do those create the brown color on food? The amino acid and sugar compounds rearrange themselves into rings when manipulated by heat. These ring formations reflect light, imparting a brown color onto food.

Enzymatic Browning vs Non-Enzymatic Browning

Enzymatic browning is a reaction from oxidation that turns certain foods brown, such as fruit and vegetables like cut apples, pears, and bananas. Non-enzymatic browning is a reaction from chemicals that happens while preparing food through specific heat transfer cooking applications. The cooking applications that apply non-enzymatic browning are the Maillard reaction and caramelization.

Maillard Reaction vs Caramelization

small dish of roasted coffee beans

Although the Maillard reaction and caramelization both brown food, they are quite different in why their reactions happen. The Maillard reaction happens when there are both sugars and proteins found in foods. Therefore, the Maillard reaction happens on foods like bread, coffee and cacao beans, beer, eggs (think: fried eggs or egg wash!), meat, and fish.

Caramelization happens when there is only sugar found in food. Therefore, caramelization occurs in foods like fruits, honey, and maple syrup, and when making caramel sauce or caramel candies.

The Maillard reaction is a complex chemical reaction that develops diverse flavors, enticing aromas, and beautifully browned food. This Maillard effect can easily be incorporated into the food or beverages you sell at your cafe, bakery, brewery, or restaurant. If you’re roasting coffee or cacao beans, baking artisan bread, brewing different types of beer, searing fish like halibut, or grilling the perfect steak, then your foods are all benefitting from the scientifically proven deliciousness that is the Maillard reaction.

Posted in: Bakeries|Kitchen & Cooking Tips|Menu Tips|By Val Goodrich
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