Learn About the Maillard Reaction and How It Can Make You a Better Cook

It's too bad we never learned about this in chemistry class.

The Maillard reaction is one of the most important flavor-producing reactions in cooking. It's responsible for the delicious flavors in everything from chocolate chip cookies and caramels to fried chicken, coffee, waffles, beer, and seared steak.

If you plan on cooking tonight, you might use the Maillard reaction to transform your raw ingredients into a better eating experience. Here's what it is exactly, why it's important, and how you can sear or roast your dinner to perfection with a few chemistry-led tips.

What Is the Maillard Reaction?

The Maillard reaction is an interaction between amino acids—the building blocks of protein—and reducing sugars. It provides the browning of foods and imparts mouthwatering toasty flavors in dishes.

The term Maillard reaction is often used synonymously with browning (or searing and roasting), but the process creates so much more than just a color change; it dramatically changes the flavors and aromas of foods to make them more appealing to humans. (Think of the difference between a raw potato and a French fry or a seared steak and a raw one.)


Understanding how to use the Maillard reaction to your advantage in the kitchen is one of the easiest and most effective ways to become a better cook. When considering the Maillard reaction, think of three key benefits: browning, the complexity of flavor, and aroma.

How to Sear a Steak for Better Flavor

Using the Maillard reaction to your advantage is all about controlling and manipulating heat, moisture, and time. For example, the outside of a steak won’t caramelize in a boiling pot of water or even in a seasoned cast-iron skillet over low heat. Here's what you need to do instead.

Searing Tips

  • Pat your steak dry with a towel before browning it to remove moisture that could tamper with the Maillard reaction (read: helps you avoid a sad, soggy steak).
  • Season the meat with lots of salt right before searing to help the interior of the meat retain moisture after it’s done cooking.
  • Preheat cooking oil in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat before adding the meat. To brown a steak, it needs to go into a piping-hot pan so that its surface gets sufficiently hot and dehydrated enough for the Maillard reaction to kick in—which happens around 300 degrees. That’s when you’ll see the steak start to turn brown.

How to Brown Potatoes for More Crunch

The method of inciting the Maillard reaction in roasted potatoes is surprisingly similar to what we do with steak. Nailing that perfectly crispy roasted potato is all about manipulating heat (meaning using lots of it), moisture (removing water and using oil to give the potatoes a crispy-tender texture), and time.

Roasting Tips

  • Parboil potatoes first to soften the insides before the hot roasting begins: It keeps the balance between a tender (not raw) interior and crisp (not burnt) exterior.
  • Make sure potatoes are perfectly dry before coating them in oil, as water is the enemy of the Maillard reaction; excess moisture prevents them from immediate browning, and you'll be left with soggy potatoes instead.
  • Flatten the potatoes to increase the surface area that'll be exposed to the hot, dry air of the oven, which means more potato gets browned and crispy thanks to the (yup) Maillard reaction.

And there you have it. You've officially graduated from home cook to chef.

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