One of the most important flavor-producing reactions in cooking is the Maillard reaction. It is sometimes called the “browning reaction” in discussions of cooking, but that description is incomplete at best. Cooked meats, seafood, and other protein-laden foods that undergo the Maillard reaction do turn brown, but there are other reactions that also cause browning. The Maillard reaction creates brown pigments in cooked meat in a very specific way: by rearranging amino acids and certain simple sugars, which then arrange themselves in rings and collections of rings that reflect light in such a way as to give the meat a brown color.
The important thing about the Maillard reaction isn’t the color, it’s the flavors and aromas. Indeed, it should be called “the flavor reaction,” not the “browning reaction.” The molecules it produces provide the potent aromas responsible for the characteristic smells of roasting, baking, and frying. What begins as a simple reaction between amino acids and sugars quickly becomes very complicated: the molecules produced keep reacting in ever more complex ways that generate literally hundreds of various molecules. Most of these new molecules are produced in incredibly minute quantities, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.
The Maillard reaction occurs in cooking of almost all kinds of foods, although the simple sugars and amino acids present produce distinctly different aromas. This is why baking bread doesn’t smell like roasting meat or frying fish, even though all these foods depend on Maillard reactions for flavor. The Maillard reaction, or its absence, distinguishes the flavors of boiled, poached, or steamed foods from the flavors of the same foods that have been grilled, roasted, or otherwise cooked at temperatures high enough to dehydrate the surface rapidly — in other words, at temperatures above the boiling point of water. These two factors, dryness and temperature, are the key controls for the rate of the Maillard reaction.
High-temperature cooking speeds up the Maillard reaction because heat both increases the rate of chemical reactions and accelerates the evaporation of water. As the food dries, the concentration of reactant compounds increases and the temperature climbs more rapidly.
Temperatures need to be high to bring about the Maillard reaction, but as long as the food is very wet, its temperature won’t climb above the boiling point of water. At atmospheric pressure, only high-heat cooking techniques can dry out the food enough to raise the temperature sufficiently. It’s not the water that stops the reaction, but rather the low boiling point at normal, sea-level pressure. In the sealed environment of a pressure cooker, the Maillard reaction can, and does, occur. This is something we exploit when making soups, like in our Caramelized Carrot Soup, or purees, like the broccoli puree in our Brassicas recipe. Adding baking soda to the pressure cooker raises the food’s pH (making it more alkaline), which also helps. Chinese cooks often marinate meat or seafood in mixtures containing egg white or baking soda just before stir-frying.
So, in boiled, poached, and steamed muscle foods, an entirely different set of aromas dominates the flavor. Drying and browning the surface first will, however, allow the reaction to proceed slowly at temperatures below the boiling point of water. This is why we sear frozen steak before cooking it in a low-temperature oven. Searing food before vacuum sealing and cooking sous vide can add depth to the flavor of sous vide dishes. This step should be avoided for lamb, other meats from grass-fed animals, and a few other foods in which presearing can trigger unwanted reactions that cause off-flavors and warmed-over flavors to form when the food is later cooked sous vide. We recommend searing those foods after cooking them sous vide.
One of the challenges to getting the Maillard reaction going is getting the surface hot and dry enough without overcooking the underlying flesh, or at least overcooking it as little as possible. Cooks have developed several strategies to this end, some simple and some fairly baroque.
One strategy that works well is to remove as much water from the surface of the meat as possible before cooking it (via blotting or drying at low temperature). Fast heating using deep fryers, super-hot griddles and grills, and even blowtorches are also helpful tactics, such as when we deep-fry chicken wings.
You might think that raising the temperature even higher would enhance the Maillard reaction. It does up to a point, but above 180 °C / 355 °F a different set of reactions occur: pyrolysis, also known as burning. People typically like foods a little charred, but with too much pyrolysis comes bitterness. The black compounds that pyrolysis creates also may be carcinogenic, so go easy on charring your foods for visual appeal.
Adapted from Modernist Cuisine