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Managing Editor: Brian Hunsaker
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Manager of the Managing Editor: Katt
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Guest Contributor: Mark Shure
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The why of brown

steaks

Ever wonder what gives your steak that beautiful brown crust and amazing aroma?  How about why bread dough goes from white and unassuming to toasty golden brown and delicious?  Both of these phenomena, and many others, are the responsibility of the same reaction which is represented by that picture up there.  This reaction is known as Maillard browning which along with caramelization are the two non-enzymatic browning methods responsible for delicious food.  To find out what ducks have to do with cooking, read on.

Ok so I guess the Mallard reaction is slightly different than the Maillard one but that’s another article.  This reaction in food was named after the chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who discovered it in the 1910’s while trying to synthesize proteins.  This is of course not to say that it had not been employed in cooking until than.  Since the man first cooked dinosaur over a fire (well at least according to the cartoons I have seen) he has been enjoying the flavours and aromas produced by the Maillard reaction.  So just what is it than?  Enjoy this simple diagram.

maillard-reaction1

Well it’s actually a super complicated chemical reaction as shown in that simple diagram above, but can be explained rather easily.  When the amino acids in foods (the building blocks of proteins) react with the sugars in foods, particularly in the presence of heat, the resultant molecules are responsible for the range of aromas and tastes that a particular food has.  Depending on the amino acids involved dictates the resulting flavors, it’s through this reaction that we are able to chemically create artificial flavouring.  Take a steak that is seared on a grill for instance the resulting Maillard reaction creates as many as 600 unique flavour compounds.

Armed with the above knowledge this can help us immensely when cooking food.  Since it is known that the Maillard reaction occurs most rapidly in the presence of heat between 300° F and 500° we now know why it is so important to have a really hot grill when searing steak.  Since only the outside will reach these really high temperatures, thus triggering the Maillard reaction, the strongest flavours will be on the surface.  This explains why most recipes that call for cooking methods such as braising suggest first browning the meat over high heat.  Doing so assures you will unlock all the unique flavour compounds released by the Maillard reaction.  Also of interest is how this affects lean cuts of meat.  Since most lean meats contain little to no sugars the browning that occurs here is usually a result of the proteins themselves breaking down and not their reaction to sugars.  This helps explain the distinctly inferior flavour of lean meat.

Bread is another great example of the Maillard reaction, when baking or toasting bread the proteins and sugars combine, not only to give off that nice golden brown colour but also to give the flavour we describe as toasted.  Yep the reaction in bread and the resulting compounds is what is responsible for the smell and taste you get from bread, one of the best aromas around!

Hopefully with a little knowledge of this complex chemical reaction we can bend it to our wills and make sure that the reaction from those eating our foods is as good as the one from Maillard.

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