What is the Maillard Reaction?

What is the Mailllard reaction?
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The Maillard reaction (pronounced "my-yard") is a culinary phenomenon that occurs when proteins in meat are heated to temperatures of 310 F or higher, causing them to turn brown. Named for the French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who discovered the process at the start of the 20th century, the Maillard reaction is similar to the process of caramelization, where carbohydrates like sugar turn brown when heated.

While caramelization is not the identical chemical process as the Maillard reaction, the effects are visually very similar. You probably know it by the colloquial term " browning."

What the Maillard Reaction Does to Food

Many popular foods owe their roasted umami flavor to the Maillard Reaction. Many popular foods undergo this culinary phenomenon during cooking. Here's a small list of the taste we owe to this chemical reaction.

  • Chocolate
  • Coffee Roasting
  • Browning of meats
  • The dark brown crusts of bagels, pretzels, and toast
  • Malted barley found in wheat beers
  • Black garlic
  • Condensed Milk
  • Golden brown color of french fries

Using the Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction is the principle behind the browning of meat when it is seared as a prelude to braizing it. This process creates a thick, dark-brown crust on the surface of the meat that enhances its appearance and flavor, and can only be produced by high-temperature, dry-heat cooking techniques.

One of the prerequisites for obtaining a dark brown crust on your meat is ensuring that it is dry before putting it in the pan. If it's too wet, the moisture will cook off, forming steam, which interferes with the browning process and tends to produce a gray exterior rather than brown. You'll want to make sure that you ​get your pan very hot before adding the meat.

A cast-iron skillet (like this one) is excellent for browning meat because it gets very hot and maintains its temperature very well.

Doctor Louis Camille Maillard

In 1912, a French chemist named Louis Camille Maillard was attempting to synthesize biological protein synthesis. He published a paper explaining how amino acids react to sugars when heated; this reaction would become known as the Maillard Reaction. Along with being a chemist, Maillard was a physician specializing in kidney diseases. For many years the Maillard Reaction was mostly studied for its culinary, delicious as that is, researchers are now finding medical applications for it as well.

Maillard Reaction in the Human Body

Scientists have found that the Maillard reaction also occurs naturally in the human body. It is a step in the production of Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs), where proteins or lipids in the body bond to sugars. These AGEs affect nearly every cell in the body. Doctors have found a correlation between the production of AGEs and many diseases. In particular, it seems to correlate to degenerative eye disorders and some diabetic complications. Doctors think that the suppression of this reaction may have medical value.

Research is ongoing to discover all the medical implications of this interesting chemical reaction.