The Maillard Reaction—The Reason Why Your Food Tastes, Looks, & Smells So Good

June 23, 2020

the maillard reaction

The Maillard Reaction—Chemical reactions that occur between the amino acids (building blocks of protein) and sugars in your food when there is heat, producing a multitude of flavours, smells, and colours. This reaction explains why the “golden brown” factor is so sought after in baked goods and food, and why certain baking, cooking, or prep methods produce more aromatic and flavourful food. 

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In our fifth series of #bitesizedbyBakestarters, we have… The Maillard Reaction! 🗯 Sounds unfamiliar? If you’ve never heard of it before, you’ve most probably seen it in action! The reaction is also the reason why many recipes, including ours, always asks to cook/bake until “golden brown”; why you’ve to dry your meat before cooking it; why you’ve to sear it over high heat, and more! The golden-brown appearance, charred surface on steaks, and toasted aroma are all results of the Maillard reaction. It happens when the proteins and sugars in your food react when exposed to heat, changing the flavour, aroma, and colour of your food. SWIPE to find out how it works 👉 — We hope you’re enjoying this series with us! If you like it, don’t forget to share it with your friends below👇 and let us know what you wanna learn and see in our upcoming sets!

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In cooking and baking, one of the most crucial chemical reactions is the Maillard reaction. A French chemist, Louis-Camille Maillard, discovered this reaction as something that happens between amino acids and sugars in 1912. 

However, its role in the culinary world wasn’t completely understood until the 1950s. Thanks to the scientists and culinary experts who explored more about this reaction, we can now apply this knowledge to create delicious, mouth-watering food.

Most of the time, it’s described as a reaction that gives cooked food a dark brown colour or charred appearance. Food typically undergoes a colour change from their original colour to dark brown when they’re cooked at high temperatures, for instance, grilling steak and baking loaves of bread. 

Although the most noticeable product of this reaction is the change of colour, it’s actually not the main outcome.

Nutella Scrolls | Chocolate-Hazelnut Rolls (~9 rolls)Bakestarters’ Nutella Scrolls

The Maillard reaction is more about the flavours and aromas produced when food is exposed to high heat. Notice the characteristic smell from different types of food when you fry, roast, or bake them? They all happen because of the Maillard reaction. 

Since the composition of amino acids and sugars in various foods is different, cooked foods don’t develop flavours or aromas resembling one another. Try to compare roasted chicken and a freshly baked loaf of bread and you’ll know what we mean! 

Let’s Find Out More About the Maillard Reaction!

Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars, which occurs when food is heated. 

This process will lead to the browning of the food’s exterior, along with the emergence of new flavours and aromas. 

In general, the Maillard reaction makes food more appealing. 

Take steak as an example. Most of us prefer slightly charred steak, just because they have this particular flavour and aroma that can’t be produced by merely cooking the meat until it’s done.

tearing apart layered bread
Perfectly baked coffee-swirled bread with a browned crust.

Another situation that perfectly exemplifies how the Maillard reaction makes food more appealing is when you bake bread, cake, or cookies. Who doesn’t love the smell of these freshly-baked goods when they just come out of the oven?

This aroma is thanks to the Maillard reaction.

Brown butter, which is known as a “magical” ingredient that adds complexity to the flavour of baked goods, is also produced through the Maillard reaction. It's also the reason why we use brown butter for all our cookie baking kits!

The Importance of Heat

Heat is an element that must be present in order to induce the Maillard reaction. Without a temperature that is high enough, the Maillard reaction won’t ever occur. 

A temperature higher than 140°C is needed for the Maillard reaction to take place, for that desired browned appearance and enticing aroma. 

For example, searing steak on a hot pan will surely produce the results you want, but boiling it will only result in a greyish piece of meat since the temperature of boiling water won’t reach anything higher than 100°C.

gyoza recipe
The Maillard reaction also helps in creating these gyozas’ golden brown surface

Too Much Moisture = No Maillard Reaction

It's also important to make sure that the food you’re cooking doesn’t contain too much moisture. 

A wet surface will hinder it from reaching high temperatures quickly, slowing the progress of the Maillard reaction. This is why it is more difficult, and takes a longer time to sear a damp piece of meat until it’s golden brown. 

Frying, grilling, roasting, and baking are the most efficient cooking methods for inducing the Maillard reaction, since it’ll help your food surpass 100°C in a relatively short time. Your food will also be dry enough to progress into a Maillard reaction.

Drying meat by patting it using paper towels before cooking is recommended, to ensure that there isn’t too much moisture. Salting meat is also a preferred method to prepare it for cooking. 

Other than bringing out flavours, salt draws out moisture and creates an ideal condition for the Maillard reaction to occur.

The Role of Protein and Sugar Content in Food

For the Maillard reaction to happen, the food being cooked must contain proteins and sugars. 

But that doesn’t mean any protein-rich or sugary food can progress into a Maillard reaction. There has to be the right proportion of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and reducing sugars

Reducing sugars are “simple sugars”/carbohydrates that can react with amino acids when the conditions are suitable. Examples of such sugars are glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, and galactose (you might have seen some of these in the nutrition information of certain foods!).

If the temperature is high enough and the food is cooked for a sufficient period of time, you’ll get a flavourful and aromatic dish as a result.

Different Compounds, Different Flavours

Ever wondered why different foods give different results when they’re cooked at high temperatures? It’s because the Maillard Reaction can make the compounds in food produce various aromas and flavours

There are several categories of these aroma compounds, for instance:

  • Pyrazines contribute to the emergence of a roasted/toasted aroma (can also be found in certain wines!)
  • Furanones help in creating sweet, caramel-like flavours and slightly burnt aromas in foods with relatively high sugar content.
  • Thiophenes give roasted meat its characteristic meaty, roasted taste and aroma.

Maybe it’s starting to get a little bit science-y, but here’s an image that summarises some of the possible outcomes of the Maillard reaction. 

From the following picture, you can see that the Maillard reaction is actually a very complex process, which makes it possible to create an extensive range of flavours!

what-is-maillard-reaction
Image source: Compound Interest

The Downside to the Maillard Reaction—Acrylamide

The flavours and aromas resulting from the Maillard reaction might be pleasant, but there’s a downside to it. 

Aside from producing the desirable outcomes, a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) byproduct called acrylamide is also present in many food products that have undergone the Maillard reaction. 

The longer a food is exposed to heat, the more acrylamide will be produced, which is not good for our body. French fries, cookies, and potato chips are some examples of food that contain high levels of acrylamide. 

gula melaka white choc cookie recipe
Bakestarters’ Gula Melaka White Chocolate Cookies

While it’s beneficial for our health to limit the consumption of food that contains acrylamide, the presence of this compound is inevitable, and consuming minimal amounts of it will not be very detrimental to your health. 

what is the maillard reaction

Food Becomes Much More Enjoyable When the Maillard Reaction Happens

Since the Maillard reaction is very complex, the application of our knowledge about it in cooking and baking probably only covers the basics.  

But without understanding the Maillard reaction, we’d never be able to recreate the taste of food we truly enjoy.  

This reaction explains why the “golden brown” factor is so sought after in baked goods and food, and why certain baking, cooking, or prep methods produce more aromatic and flavourful food. 

Pan-seared steak, deep-fried food, and various baked goods are just some of the many examples. 

Knowing what should be done to make the Maillard reaction happen will help you to get exactly what you’re craving for!

Read Next: 10 Reasons An Oven Thermometer Is As Important As An Oven For Your Kitchen




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The Bakestarters blog features tips and lessons to baking in Singapore, along with useful tips when using our signature baking kits.

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