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016 // 017 The Science of Taste and Flavor

Why does cooked T HE MA ILLA RD RE A C T IO N

FOOD
Amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—clash with
nearby sugar molecules (even meats contain traces of sugar)
to fuse into new substances. Fused molecules fling
themselves apart and crash into others to combine, separate,

TASTE
and reform in countless ways. Hundreds of new substances
are born, some brown in color and many carrying aromas.
As the temperature climbs, more changes occur. The exact
flavors and aromas generated by browning depend on a
food’s unique combination of protein types and sugars.

SO GOOD? BE F O RE

Taste is a surprisingly complex process. UP TO 284°F 140°C

W HAT 'S G O IN G O N ?
The start of cooking
In 1912, French medical researcher Louis-Camille The temperature needs to reach about 284ºF
Maillard made a discovery that would leave a lasting (140ºC) before sugar molecules and amino
impact on cooking science. He analyzed how the acids have enough energy to react together.
While the outer layers of the food are damp,
building blocks of proteins (amino acids) and sugars react
it will not warm above the boiling point of
together, and uncovered a complex family of reactions water (212ºF/100ºC), so surface moisture
that begin to take place when protein-containing foods, must be driven off by dry heat first.
such as meats, nuts, cereals, and many vegetables, reach
around 284ºF (140ºC).
We now call these molecular changes the “Maillard
reaction,” and they help us make sense of the many
ways in which food browns and takes on flavor as it
W H AT' S GO IN G O N ?

cooks. Seared steak, crispy fish skin, the aromatic crust


on bread, and even the aroma of toasted nuts and
spices are all thanks to this reaction. The interplay of
the two components creates enticing aromas unique to
each food. Understanding the Maillard reaction helps
the cook in many ways: adding fructose-rich honey to
AMINO ACIDS SUGARS
a marinade fuels the reaction; pouring cream into (PROTEINS)
simmering sugar provides milk proteins and sugars for
butterscotch and caramel flavors; and brushing pastry
with egg provides extra protein for the crust to brown.