Whether you like it or not, all sorts of chemical reactions happen in your pan, creating new flavours. They are not at all scary or dangerous, but actually more than welcome. They enrich your food if you use them well. One of the most important chemical reactions in cooking is the maillard reaction.
The maillard reaction is also known as non-enzymatic browning. It is a collective term for a complex series of chemical reactions that occur under the influence of heat, between reducing sugars and amino acids (e.g. in proteins).
All sorts of factors come into play here:
- The substances present (types of sugars and proteins)
- The temperature/time combinations
- The concentration of the substances
- And the acidity
Foods turn brown during cooking. This browning is called the maillard reaction. So browning your piece of meat is the chemical reaction between reducing sugars and amino acids. These substances provide the savoury taste of fried meat, the umami flavour of broth, the delicious smell of freshly baked bread and give colour during cooking. Every cook involuntarily achieves a maillard reaction, because proteins and sugars are always present in the products.
Maillard reaction temperature
The maillard reaction is achieved at any temperature. The lower the temperature the slower the reaction proceeds. You can work briefly at a high temperature, for example when frying meat. Or longer at a lower temperature, to draw a stock from the same piece of meat.
Of course, the final flavour depends on the ingredients used but also has a lot to do with the combination of temperature and time. When the temperature is lower, chemical reactions also proceed more slowly. When it is higher, the aroma bouquet also changes. This is because several maillard reactions take place simultaneously. The rates of these reactions depend on temperature. Some reactions depend more on temperature than others.
Acrylamide can be formed at very high temperatures. This is a substance that can be formed when starchy products are heated above 120°C. Examples of products include fried potato products, coffee, gingerbread, breakfast cereals and bread (especially toasted). The substance could potentially be harmful to humans at higher intakes. Acrylamide formation can be limited by eating a varied diet and not frying potato products too brown.
In food products, the maillard reaction affects taste, smell and nutritional value. The change in colour (a brownish-yellow colour develops) is most visible. Besides cooking, the maillard reaction also occurs when preparing beer, chocolate, meat, coffee and bread. And in almost all products that are roasted, broiled, baked or fried.
Within the foodies scene, the reaction is much talked about but it also occurs in skin, for example. Consider self-tanning substances under the influence of certain ambient temperatures.
Physician and chemist Maillard
The maillard reaction is named after French physician and chemist Louis Camille Maillard. He was engaged in a study of kidney diseases in 1912 and investigated, among other things, the effect of sugar and amino acids on the kidneys. Subsequently, he also engaged in food research.
The difference between caramelisation and the maillard reaction
Both caramelisation and the maillard reaction are reactions that occur during cooking and baking of foods that create aromas, flavours and colours. But what is the difference? In caramelisation, sugars are broken down by heating. This happens at a temperature of up to about 150 degrees Celsius. A new compound is formed that provides that brown colour and sweet taste. The maillard reaction occurs when sugars as well as amino acids (proteins) are heated together.