Maillard Reaction: What You Need To Know About It

Meat is browning on a hot grate with burning charcoal underneath

Have you ever wondered why bread tastes crunchy and malty after toasting? Or coffee tastes dark and strong after roasting? Well, that’s the magic of the Maillard reaction.

And the same magic happens when you sear a steak. A bloody red piece of meat turns into a delicious steak with a gorgeous golden brown exterior, accompanied by wonderful aromas and mouth-watering flavors.

In this article, we’ll tell you what you need to know about this incredible chemical reaction.

What Is The Maillard Reaction?

The Maillard reaction (or effect) is a chemical reaction between proteins and reducing sugars in food, with heat being the main enabler. The end result of this process is newly-formed pigment molecules called melanoidin, along with other enhanced flavor and aroma ones. The melanoidins are what gives food surface its distinctive golden brown color.

Similar to caramelization (we’ll get to this later), the Maillard reaction is a non-enzymatic food browning. It basically means food will “brown” even in the absence of enzymes.

The reaction is named after the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard for its discovery in the early 1900s. But not until 1973, an American chemist named John Hodge conducted further research and published a paper on the subject.

FYI, the Maillard reaction happens not only in food, but also inside our bodies. In fact, it’s a part of the human aging process.

Here is a quick video about this wonderful reaction. Get ready though. It’s going to get real sciencey.

YouTube video

How Does The Maillard Reaction Occur?

Because this website is all about BBQ, let’s use a BBQ example to make things easy to follow. The Maillard reaction occurs when you put a piece of steak on a hot grill. The steak has proteins and sugars in it. The hot grill contains heat. Put everything together and voila, you’ve got the whole Maillard effect going on. 

Now, remember that I say reducing sugars in the last section. That’s because the molecules of reducing or simple sugars are small. Thus respond to proteins quicker and easier. On the other hand, the molecules of complex sugars (such as starches or table sugars) are simply too big to bond with proteins. Therefore not ideal at all.

When heat is applied at first, there are only a small number of sugars and proteins mixing and bonding. This is where the Maillard effect starts. As more heat is supplied or the temperature is rising, more and more proteins and sugars “get the invitation to the party”. When the temperature gets past 285F (140C), the Maillard reaction is in full effect.

As we can see, heat or temperature is the primary factor that affects the Maillard reaction. In our example, when you sear a steak at 375F for 10 minutes, you’ll get the browning.

However, time also plays a role in this. Even in a lower heat environment, Maillard reaction still occurs if given enough time. That’s why your pork ribs develop a dark brown crust or bark after being inside the smoker for 6 hours. 

Keep in mind that the flavor and aroma compounds will be different in each scenario. Therefore, a seared steak will taste differently from a smoked rack of ribs. 

Think of this whole Maillard reaction as a math equation. When you add some and subtract some, the result will be different. And that also applies to the amount of sugars and proteins. We’ll touch more on this in the next section. But as a cook, it’s your job to control these variables to get the desirable result.

So, with all being said, the formula for the Maillard reaction is pretty straightforward.

Sugars + Proteins + Heat + Time = Maillard Reaction

The Difference Between Caramelization & Maillard Browning

As I mentioned earlier, caramelization is another non-enzymatic browning that is similar to the Maillard reaction. In fact, the two are often mistaken for one another. It’s because they both produce the same result, which is the browning of food. However, they’re two different processes entirely.

Caramelization is a process of liquefying sugars with the help of heat. There are no proteins and enzymes needed. What you end up with is a dark brown liquid with a nutty, sweet yet slightly bitter taste. We call it caramel.

Now, caramelization and the Maillard reaction often happen together. And depending on the ratio between sugar and protein in certain food, one process will be more prominent than the other.

You’ll find caramelization more in food with high sugar and low protein, such as bread or cookies. And because of the high level of sugar, these food items give out more aromas than flavors.

In our example of searing steak, the Maillard reaction is obviously more prominent because of the high level of protein. But as a result, you will experience more flavors than aromas.

How Do You Control Maillard Reaction?

There are many ways to achieve a better browning of your food, which is meat in this case. Your goal is to always get a golden dark brown on the meat surface. Don’t let it blacken, however. It has turned into carbon. And it’s not healthy for you at all.

Dry The Meat

If the surface of the meat is still wet, it will steam instead of brown. Therefore, you need to pat dry or blot the meat before cooking. Also avoid applying any basting until the surface is where it needs to be.

Another method is to dry brine your meat 1 hour or more in advance. That way, the salt will draw out the moisture through osmosis. Or you can leave it like that in the fridge overnight and up to a few days. What you end up with is a well-seasoned piece of meat with a perfectly dried out surface, ready for that Maillard browning sear.

Oil The Meat

When you oil the meat, you achieve two things. First, oiling prevents the meat from sticking to the grate. Second, the oil fills in these tiny air gaps between the meat and the grate. It also conducts heat better than air. As a result, it provides a greater and more uniform surface browning.

Add Some Sugar

If you’re grilling, you might want to add a small amount of sugar. Be careful not to add too much. Otherwise, it will burn and blacken fast since the heat is high here.

However, if you’re barbecuing or smoking low n slow, you would want to add some sugar to your dry rubs. Avoid using sugar substitutes such as Stevia. They ain’t the same thang!

Maintain The Right Temperature

Depending on what you’re cooking, to achieve a better browning, you either need less time and high heat or more time and low heat. Here, time is easy to control. But heat is a different story. That’s why you need to master your cooker’s temperature control, whether it’s a grill, a smoker, or a smoker grill combo.

Flip Frequently

If you don’t flip your meat frequently, what will happen is that the heat gets further into the center of the meat. By flipping it, you let the surface cool down after browning. Then reapply the heat to add more browning to it. It sort of works the same way as rotissering a chicken.

Adjust The pH

The last tip really depends on what you’re looking for. If you want more color and texture as in a darker and crispier crust, you might want to lower the pH of the meat surface with some acid. But if you want more flavors and aromas, you need to up the pH level with a little baking soda.

Long Story Short

To recap.

When heat is applied to food, it changes the food’s chemical properties. Some are obvious while some are hidden. However, the most important change that we need to understand is the Maillard reaction, along with its cousin caramelization.

These two reactions produce the same result which is the pigmentation of food, but they’re two totally different processes. That said, they always occur side by side and often complement one another. With these two happening, your food always tastes better, smells more amazing, and looks more appetizing.

Understand them. Learn how to manipulate them. And you will be a better backyard cook in no time.

Still have questions? Please feel free to leave a comment down below.

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Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan is a barbecue enthusiast who fires up his grill regularly, at least 3 times a week. Combining the experience and his passion for outdoor cooking, he put together where he shares recipe ideas along with his knowledge of grilling and barbecuing techniques.

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