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The Maillard Reaction: What it is and why it matters

“Mmmh, smells good!” That’s definitely what you want to hear when you’re cooking dinner, isn’t it? But have you ever wondered what actually causes the enticing smell of a grilled steak or fried lamb chops?

These delicious whiffs are due to a sequence of chemical reactions that was first reported over 100 years ago by Louis-Camille Maillard (say: my-YAR). Not only does the Maillard reaction create literally mouth-watering aromas, but it also browns the meat and most importantly, gives it the amazing flavours we love so much.

How does it work?

The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars, creating hundreds of different flavour compounds in the process, which break down further into even more flavour compounds. Each food has its very own set of flavours that is formed when we cook with heat.

The characteristic smells of roasting, baking and frying are owed to aromatic molecules that are created during the Maillard reaction. Moreover, the browning process gives the steak its typical tasty look.

Another type of browning is caused by caramelisation of sugars, which is different from the Maillard reaction but can occur simultaneously.

How can we make it work for us?

Intensifying the flavour profile of any food, the Maillard reaction is one for the key elements in cooking and we want to make sure we get the best out of it. It’s essential that this process happens quickly, especially when cooking a steak.

There are three critical factors that need to be taken into consideration for optimal results:

  1. Heat
  2. Fat
  3. Dryness

The higher the temperature, the faster the reaction will occur. Also, bringing the meat in direct contact with hot metal, like a pan or a barbecue grill, will speed up the process. Heat your pan or grill to about 220 °C without burning the fat, and then add your steak. Avoid burning by exposing the meat to high temperatures for too long.

Fat in and around the steak will help transfer the heat, which brings on the Maillard reaction even quicker. If you have a very lean cut, brush on some oil with a high smoke point.

Make sure to dry your steak with kitchen paper before cooking. Water does not heat above the boiling point and needs to evaporate before the Maillard reaction can set in. Also, having water in the pan will cool down the fat and make it spit.

The perfect steak

Practice makes perfect, so try these tips with a number of delicious recipes, like the Scotch fillet steak with blue butter or the steak and cheese onion melts while thinking of Louis-Camille Maillard and his wonderful discovery.

Posted by Shawn Moodie

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