The Maillard Reaction

Ever enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak from the grill with that beautiful, rich brown crusted edge? Or a smooth cup of coffee that warms your soul? How about a toasted marshmallow on your s’mores? Crispy bacon and toast with your breakfast?

Hungry yet?

You have a chemical reaction to thank for all of these mouth-watering dishes! It’s called the Maillard Reaction. First described by French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard in 1912, this chemical reaction occurs when heat reacts with amino acids and reducing sugars, producing some truly marvelous flavors!

But what’s the difference between the Maillard Reaction and say, boiling? Or poaching? Those happen at higher temperatures too, right? The Maillard reaction occurs only when there is a dry heat. When foods are cooked at higher temperatures, but contain lots of H2O, they can only reach the boiling temperature of water (212 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius). For the Maillard Reaction to occur, you need temperatures between 300 and 355 degrees Fahrenheit (caramelization occurs around 320 degrees). Anything higher will start to result in pyrolysis (burning), which in some foods can produce carcinogens. Yikes!

So when you’re grilling that juicy burger and caramelizing onions for it in the skillet, remember to thank the Maillard Reaction for those savory flavors!

Sources and further research…

The Maillard Reaction

Food Chemistry – The Maillard Reaction


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