What is the main reason so many of us are drawn to that perfectly seared steak?  Why do so many recipes have us finish or start our recipes with a hot sear or broil?  What makes that outer seared portion of meat taste so good and different than the rest of the meat?  That is the Maillard Reaction.

Origins of the Maillard Reaction

I don’t know how or when humans transitioned from a raw diet to a cooked one, but I have my theories.  Generally, my theory says that at one point lightning or something burned meat and it was decided that it was still good to eat and then there was much love. Not only are my theories not based in fact, but there has been zero research to go with it.

The Maillard Reaction is pronounced “my yar” reaction.  It was the name of a French scientist, Louis Camille Maillard, who was studying the biosynthesis of proteins.  A smart French teacher once told me that in order to pronounce French words, you only pronounce the first few letters, ignore the last couple, and say it while pinching your nose. This seems to work most of the time.

The process where sugars and amino acids combine under heat greater than ~280 degrees F is called the Maillard Reaction.  The brown color and results of this reaction can create thousands of unique individual flavors.  There are many situations where you encounter this and every single one is delicious!  Some examples include:

Steaks and Roasts
– Cookies
– Bread Crust
– Roasted Marshmallows
– Creme Brûlée 
– Caramel
– Even the darker colors of beer are caused by this reaction!

 The Science of the Maillard Reaction

I’m not going to go deep into the science beyond simply noting it is a mixture of amino acids with sugar under circumstances of heat on this website.  If you have read some of my stuff before, you’d be shocked to hear that because I am quite a science geek.  

Instead, here are a couple links to very informative websites that go into it in much greater detail.  

Science Direct
C&EN

If you are really interested in seeing this in action, mix some syrup and break open an amino acid pill from any drug store and mix together on a hot pan.  Take a taste, and you’ll be very surprised!

The Best Way to Obtain the Maillard Reaction for Your Meat

Now that we know what it is and how it is responsible for the amazing tastes, what is the best way to get it?  

  • Minimize Moisture – If you read any of the science behind it, you’d know that water/moisture is actually a Maillard Reaction inhibitor.  So ensure your steak/meat is pat dry before placing on the heat.  
  • Less Steam is good – Another method of moisture comes from the steam that is created by the meat releasing the juices.  Be careful to avoid over crowding the grill or pan, otherwise you are steaming your meat… or vegetables.
  • Leave your meat alone – Ever wonder why most recipes say to put the meat on the heat and then leave it alone?  I appreciate you meat flippers out there, and that is a fine tactic only AFTER you get your Maillard Reaction, but not to get it.  Set it down and let the heat do it’s thing undisturbed!
  • Keep the pan/grill HOT – The Maillard Reaction occurs above ~215 degrees F after significant time (bark on smoked meat), or within moments of a hot pan.

Overcooking…

Just a word on over cooking:  Remember, the Maillard Reaction is a chemical reaction.  Various levels of sugar, heat levels, and time all play into the flavor you receive, and there is such thing as too much of a good thing.  Too much heat will turn the sweetness and aromatics of your steak into bitter flavors, aka charring.

Happy Q’ing!

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