- 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!
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!
Arumugam, Nadia. “Food Explainer: Why Does Food Taste Better When It’s Browned?” Slate. Slate.com, 25 July 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/07/25/why_does_food_taste_better_when_it_s_browned_the_maillard_reaction_and_caramelization.html>.
Klopfer, Michael. “Frying, Boiling and the Maillard reaction.” Edible Science Fare. Edible Science Faire, 1 June 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <http://ediblesciencefaire.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/maillard-reaction/>.
“The Maillard Reaction.” Modernist Cuisine. The Modernist Cuisine, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <http://modernistcuisine.com/2013/03/the-maillard-reaction/>.