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Brown Me Up Buttercup

Brown Me Up Buttercup

Freshly toasted bread … juicy steak … seared scallops … warm choc-chip cookies straight out of the oven … ice cold beer.

Food, glorious food. Hearty, full of fibre and nutritious food, especially great for a cold winter’s night. But have you ever wondered what gives the food we love their taste and colour?

The Maillard reaction (pronounced My-yard, a French guy coined it) is one of those things. Although the specifics of how the Maillard reaction occurs is still ambiguous, it describes the chemical interaction that occurs between reducing sugars and amino acids on the surface of the food.

Turn the heat to above 140OC and just like magic, you speed up the reaction. The result is browning of the surface and also the generation of hundreds upon hundreds of complex molecules, each with their own distinctive flavours. These molecules then breakdown to form even more flavour compounds, giving us the taste we commonly associate with steak, grilled fish, or choc-chip cookies. It’s mind-boggling to think that the “steak taste” is made up of over 600 molecules!

Steak on Wooden Board
Filet Mignon Steak

This is also why boiled meat tastes completely different to an identical cut of roasted meat. During boiling, the temperature only reaches 100OC, which is too low for the Maillard reaction. This is why boiled chicken is well, not quite the same as El Jannah’s, and rather quite bland.

Here’s some tips for budding chefs:

  • Add water and you slow down the Maillard reaction
  • Increase pressure and alkalinity and you speed it up

Next time you’re chewing on a piece of steak, spare a thought for all those complex molecules popping in your mouth, and be thankful for this spontaneous reaction that gives eating so much joy.


Header Image: Eduardo Roda Lopes on Unsplash



About Joanna Ng

Joanna Ng

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