What Is the Maillard Reaction—and Why Understanding It Will Make You an Infinitely Better Cook
Where was this lesson in high school chemistry class?
One of the most important flavor-producing reactions in cooking is what’s known as the maillard reaction. This is what’s responsible for the delicious flavors in everything from chocolate chip cookies and caramels to fried chicken, coffee, waffles, beer, and yes, our insanely delicious recipe for seared steak and crispy roasted potatoes. If you plan on cooking tonight, chances are you'll be using the Maillard reaction to transform your raw ingredients into a better eating experience.
Why do we care? Because 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.
Let’s start by breaking down what the maillard reaction is. To put it simply, the maillard reaction is the interaction between amino acids—the building blocks of protein—and reducing sugars. It’s what’s responsible for the browning of foods and what imparts the mouthwatering roasty, toasty flavors in dishes. The maillard reaction is often used synonymously with 'browning,’ but it creates so much more than just a change in color—it dramatically changes the flavors and aromas of foods to make them more appealing to humans.
As an example, think of the difference between a raw potato and a french fry, or a seared steak and a raw one. When considering the maillard reaction, think about three key benefits: browning, complexity of flavor, and aroma.
Using the maillard reaction to your advantage is all about controlling and manipulating heat, moisture, and time. The outside of a steak won’t caramelize in a boiling pot of water or even in a cast iron skillet over low heat; 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 Fahrenheit. That’s when you’ll see the steak start to turn brown.
Other key searing steps not to forget: patting your steak dry with a towel before you brown it removes moisture that could tamper with the maillard reaction (read: helps you avoid a sad, soggy steak). Meanwhile, seasoning the meat with lots of salt right before you sear helps the interior of your meat retain moisture after it’s done cooking. Lastly, make sure to preheat the oil in your cast iron pan over medium-high before you add your meat.
The method of inciting the maillard reaction in our roasted potatoes is surprisingly similar to what we do with the 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.
Parboiling them first softens the potatoes’ insides before the hot roasting begins: it keeps the balance between a tender (not raw) interior and crisp (not burnt) exterior. Again, make sure your potatoes are perfectly dry before you coat them in oil, as water is the enemy of the maillard reaction—it prevents them from immediately browning and you’ll be left with soggy potatoes instead. Flattening the potatoes increases their 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.