The delicious science of the Maillard Reaction

Roast turkey on Thanksgiving! Who doesn’t love it? In fact, the best part of the bird, really, is that luscious brown, crispy turkey skin. So much flavour! And so pretty!

But what makes that delicious crust? If you said, “caramelization,” you’re close. The process by which sugar is turned to carmel happens in a lot of the same ways. But the real hero of this story is a complex and barely-understood process called the Maillard Reaction.

In short, the Maillard Reaction is the process by which amino acids, sugars and heat form to create hundreds of different chemicals, many of which create the many subtle flavors that make roasted or seared meats so delicious and some of which are brown, therefore adding to the color.

The Maillard Reaction is common to a variety of forms of cooking and lots of different types of foods. Roasting, searing, frying and grilling meats, breads and vegetables of all kinds benefit from this mystery reaction.

So, if you want to make your food taste even better this holiday season, remember the Maillard Reaction and plan for it:

  • High heat is key to this reaction. If you are cooking something big – like a turkey – best to cook at a low temp until nearly cooked, then crank the heat for the last bit to get that Maillard deliciousness working. This is especially good because..
  • Water evaporates at 200 degrees or so, but the Maillard Reaction happens around 300 degrees. Why does this matter? Because excess water on what you’re cooking will rob the food of the energy necessary to make the Maillard Reaction happen. It either won’t happen or will happen after the food has dried out!
  • The higher the water content in the food, the less likely to get that lovely brown color. Also, pan-frying things will increase the likelihood of that nice browning because its so close to the fire.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.