What happens during Cooking? – The Maillard Reaction

There are many things in life that we take for granted. Now step back, and take a look at that sentence once again. Read it to yourself. Visualize those things that you DO realize that you’ve taken for granted. Now let me tell you (and myself) that you have severely underestimated the sheer number of things that you have taken for granted in life. As a Chemist ~ no … as a Scientist, you must strive to reduce those numbers. You must go out, and FIND OUT! Without such curiosity… I’m afraid… you do not deserve to call yourself a Scientist.

Now, take cooking for instance. You purchase ingredients, follow a series of procedural steps, maybe even put in effort in the plating of the food before serving them to yourself, your loved ones, guests, or customers even. But what actually does happen in cooking.

The Maillard Reaction occurs during cooking, and is responsible for the non-enzymatic browning of foods when cooked. Of course, it consists of a number of reactions, and can occur at room temperature, but is optimal between 140 to 165 °C (284 to 329 °F). Named after French Chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, this reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars is what gives browned foods their desirable flavor.

The crusts of most breads, such as this delicious Brioche, are golden-brown due to the Maillard reaction

Above that temperature range, caramelization and pyrolysis become more pronounced.

The carbonyl group on a sugar reacts with a protein or amino acid’s amino group (RNH3deprotonated in an alkaline environment), producing an N-substituted glycosylamine.

The glycosylamine compound generated in the first step isomerizes, by undergoing Amadori rearrangement, to give a ketosamine.

The ketosamine can react in a number of ways to produce a range of different products, which themselves can react further.

The above series of mechanisms shows how acrylamide can be formed as a by-product of the Maillard reaction (which is a known carcinogen found in foods that have been overcooked). However, there are numerous other mechanistic pathways that lead to a tremendous variety of products. It is important to note that only a small subset of these contribute to flavor and aroma.

Flavors in Cooking

The Maillard reaction is responsible for many colors and flavors in foods:

  • The browning of various meats like steak, when seared and grilled.
  • The browning and umami taste in fried onions.
  • Toast.
  • The darkened crust of baked goods like pretzels and bread.
  • The golden-brown color of French fries.
  • Malted barley, found in malt whiskey or beer.
  • Dried or condensed milk.
  • Roasted coffee.
  • Dulce de leche.
  • Maple syrup.
  • Black garlic

Click to view this infographic from Ioana Top Chef website.

When you go into the kitchen next, think of the Maillard Reaction. Think about the conditions necessary to make a delicious, stunning dish for your next meal. Do not underestimate the sheer experience and skill necessary to become a Cook. Are you ready to learn how to cook? ^_^

***Excerpts taken from Wikipedia, Google Image Search and Ioana Top Chef website.


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