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Maillard Reaction Makes Bread Into Toast, Life Into Awesome

Maillard Reaction Coffee Photo Credit: Jennifer Martin

The Maillard Reaction is all around you, making your life totally awesome, and you don't even know its name.  It puts anti-oxidants in your coffee, justifies the money you spent on your BBQ, and it's why a corn dog is greater than the sum of its parts; and once you learn a little more about it, your life will never be the same.

I've been thinking about the Maillard Reaction a lot lately because I've lost control of my coffee geekery to the point where I'm now roasting coffee at home in a modified popcorn air popper (more on that in the future).  And coffee, much like a lot of the tasty foods we take for granted, is all about the Maillard Reaction.

The Mailllard reaction takes place when proteins in food are exposed to super high temperatures and undergo chemical changes to become what scientists refer to as extra tasty.  The heat needs to be really high which means things also can't be wet since water keeps things around 212 Fahrenheit and you need to go up to about 310 degrees.  It's why toasting happens at a higher temperature than baking (typically).  In the picture above, you can see the color change of raw coffee beans when they've undergone the Maillard Reaction.

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it before though.  Gastronomy's ultimate reference, The Larousse Gastronomique, doen't even an entry for it.  Maybe if you could afford Modernist Cuisine, you'd know all about it, but for most people the word is just getting out.  It's kind of like where umami was a decade ago.  If you don't know what umami is, then you've basically homeschooled your tongue and you need to just let go and let it experience the world.

You really start winning when you have the Maillard reaction going on on the outside of the food and then you have the inside boiling and cooking things in their own juices.  This is what's happening in deep frying.  If the oil is hot enough, then you have the Maillard reaction on the outside with the hot oil making things crispy and the boiling happening on the inside keeping it tender.  It's also why if the oil isn't hot enough, you just get a grease ball.

A list of things that make your life completely awesome because of the Mailllard Reaction:

  • Beer
  • Tortillas
  • Coffee
  • Steak
  • Toast
  • Browned, toasty cheese on a pizza
  • Maple Syrup
  • Are you catching my effing drift here yet?
  • Chocolate
  • Tater Tots
  • I'm getting hungry
  • Deep fried everything

This pizza I made that got straight attacked by the Maillard Reaction.  Note the super brown crust and browned mozzarella.

Maillard Reaction Pizza Photo Credit: Laurent Martin

So you see what I mean here; the Maillard reaction is all around you.  People sometimes confuse caremelization for the Maillard reaction.  That's what the Japanese would call a dickmuva, and here's why:

If caramelization was the only thing that made things turn brown then you'd be telling me the grill marks on a porterhouse steak are from all the sugar inside the beef.  Obviously the beef isn't full of sugar (though there is a minor interplay of sugars with Maillard).  Caramelization happens with sugars, the Maillard Reaction happens with proteins.

With foods like mushrooms and deeply roasted coffees, you are getting both caramelization AND maillard reactions which is ideal.  Each one produces myriad different flavors and aromas, so you want them to join forces in the fight for tastiness.

How to make it work for you: 

Turn up the heat.  Way up.  Higher.  Professional chefs tend to cook way hotter than you do at home.  That's why their steaks have a beautiful brown crust on the outside while still being eligible blood donors.  Get a nice pan that you can try to melt and then try to melt it.  You might kill a few things getting the hang of all that heat, but eventually you'll figure it out.

Make room.  If food is crowding the pan, then all the liquid and steam that comes out is going to keep the temperature low and you won't get none of that chronic brown action.  Yes, that's why your mushroom suck.

Get it on the grill.  All the juices evaporate or flow off the meat when you cook it on the grill and open flames invite Maillard over to play.  That's why everyone likes grilled meat so much, but you can do the same thing if you're fearless with a frying pan.

That's literall all it takes.  Start appreciating what your food is doing for you and crank up the heat.  Pay homage to the mighty Maillard and take it to the next level.

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