The Maillard Reaction and Caramelization


  • Why does high heat develop flavor?
  • What is the difference between the Maillard reaction and caramelization?

Please click here to read a quick review on biochemistry: proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates.

Let’s be honest. You are at a BBQ and there are two pieces of equally cooked chicken breasts. The only difference between the chicken breasts (on the surface) is color. Will you go for the pale chicken or the brown chicken? Most people, myself included, would pick the brown chicken. In our minds, a brown hue = a tastier chicken.

So now, why is that? Why do “browner” meats seem to have a deeper flavor? The answer is the Maillard reaction.

It is one of the most important flavor-producing reactions in molecular gastronomy. The Maillard reaction creates “brown pigments by rearranging amino acids and certain simple sugars” (Modernist Cuisine). When protein is heated, amino acids and sugars react to form new flavor compounds. And these flavor compounds react to make even more flavor compounds. Eventually, extremely large molecules called melanoidin pigments are created. These are the molecules that produce brown pigments and deeper flavors to the food.

Thus, high heat develops a better flavor in protein because of the Maillard reaction. Of course, the Maillard reaction also depends on the temperature and cooking method. If you have ever boiled chicken, you know that the surface never browns. The reason is because the Maillard reaction occurs when the surface temperature exceeds 300 degrees F. However, the surface temperature of food cooked in boiling water never exceeds 212 degrees F. Don’t expect a boiled chicken to look like a roasted one!

Now… caramelization!

Caramelization is exclusively “the breakdown of sugar molecules under high heat.” We all know what caramel is.

Yes, its that delicious, ooey gooey brown substance that goes on the top of ice cream sundaes. But the recipe for a simple caramel sauce only calls for sugar and water. How is white sugar transformed into this brown delight? Similar to the Maillard reaction, caramelization is the chemical reactions that “take place when sugar is heated to the point that its molecules begin to break apart” (America’s Test Kitchen). The sugar molecules break down and new flavor, color, and aroma compounds are formed. Caramelization accounts for the change in smell, taste, and look between normal white sugar and caramel.

Now, the question: what is the difference between the Maillard reaction and caramelization? The Maillard reaction takes place only when both protein and carbohydrates (sugar) are present. Caramelization is exclusively carbohydrate (sugar) only. Vegetables contain little or no protein, so technically they caramelize.

Stay tuned for an experiment testing the effect of increased caramelization on the taste of caramel!

Works Cited

Arumugam, Nadia. “Food Explainer: Why Does Food Taste Better When It’s Browned?” Slate., 25 July 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

Klopfer, Michael. “Frying, Boiling and the Maillard reaction.” Edible Science Fare. Edible Science Faire, 1 June 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

“The Maillard Reaction.” Modernist Cuisine. The Modernist Cuisine, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

6 thoughts on “The Maillard Reaction and Caramelization

  1. This is Mr Onions. For reasons that do not need to worry you Sayuri I am Bobby Pay on Google + and that seems a good link here. Interesting stuff. So larger molecules are being made when meats “brown” . At what point and at what temperature do you think it blackens to become “burnt? Is that the formation of carbon? I have read somewhere that meat cooked on a BarBQ will produce carcinogens. Have you looked into that? Also as there are only a couple of countries in the world that still sue fahrenheit i think we need at least Celsius in brackets so that the other 99% of the world know what temperatures we are dealing with. I can now bore my family re. the maillard reaction when i’m cooking Sunday roast!!

  2. I found this meat browning interesting too. I’d like to know if the energy yield from a browned piece of meat is significant different to the energy yield from an equivalent piece of meat that is not browned (boiled perhaps)? Do the new compounds made from the amino acids and carbohydrates that create the new flavours contribute to the calorie load or is this diminished in the cooking process – are browned foods better for us in terms of energy consumption?

  3. Pingback: The complicated life of health, food and relationships.

  4. Pingback: The BEST Beef Stew Recipe with Creamy Mashed Potatoes

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