Maillard Reaction: The Color of Savory is Brown

Cuisine is both an art and a science: it is an art when it strives to bring about the realization of the true and the beautiful, called le bon in the order of culinary ideas. As a science, it respects chemistry, physics and natural history. Its axioms are called aphorisms, its theorems recipes, and its philosophy gastronomy.
~Lucien Tendret, from La Table au pays de Brillat-Savarin

Why has browning been such an ultimate culinary goal of so many recipes whether on the stovetop, oven or grill? Although now it seems so basic and intuitive, as with most cooking techniques, there is a chemical explanation.

Several causes of browning exist, which may act separately or in combination at various temperatures. One of the more fundamental and common reasons is the Maillard Reaction, a non-enzymatic chemical response which occurs in foods which contain both proteins and sugars. Maillard derived aromas are extremely complex and many components are formed in trace amounts by side reactions and obscure pathways. This particular phenomenon bears the name of Louis-Camille Maillard, who happened upon it when trying to ascertain how amino acids linked up to form proteins. From research undertaken in the early 20th century, he discovered that when heated sugars and amino acids were combined, the mixture slowly turned brown. Curiously, it was not until shortly after World War II that scientists associated the direct role that Maillard’s original chemical findings played in creating robust aromas and flavors in food.

The Maillard Reaction usually occurs when the denatured proteins on the surface recombine with those natural sugars present in that food. Usually the result of heat, a chemical reaction occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, forming a multitude of interesting but poorly characterized molecules responsible for a broad, intricate range of scents and flavors, ultimately changing the pigmentation of food—the browning effect courtesy of Monsieur Maillard (1878-1936).

Leave A Comment