If you’re like most home cooks, you’ve probably seen the terms “Maillard reaction” and “caramelization” in recipes and YouTube videos and wondered exactly what they are and if they really the same thing?
In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at these two cooking techniques and help you figure out which one is right for your dish. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to explain the difference between these two common kitchen chemical reactions and be able to taste the difference!
Chemical Reactions in Cooking
First, we need to go remember some of the elementary chemical reactions in the cooking process that makes food taste good (or bad if you mess them up!
Cooking food by applying high heat is a chemical reaction that causes some interesting things to happen to our food at high temperatures. While there are countless chemical changes that happen in the kitchen, we’re here to focus on just two processes; the Maillard reaction and caramelization.
How to tell if the cooking process is a chemical reaction or a physical reaction?
A chemical reaction is one in which the molecules of the reactants are rearranged to form new products. In contrast, a physical reaction is one in which the molecules of the reactants are not rearranged.
For example, cutting a piece of bread doesn’t change the molecular structure, so it’s a physical change. However, using a toaster oven to heat the bread and add tasty brown pigments for a piece of toast for breakfast changes the molecular structure and adds different flavor compounds, so it is a chemical change.
Maillard Reaction Basics
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids (an amino acid is a compound that will help your body form protein, they’re found in lots of foods like quinoa, eggs, and fish) and sugar molecules that gives food a nice browned color and unique flavor.
The Maillard reaction actually refers to a number of reactions that all happen at about the same temperature point in food. Maillard reactions are responsible for the crispy skin on roasted meats, the dark color of bread crusts, and the rich smell of roasted coffee beans.
What temperature does the Maillard reaction occur at?
The Maillard reaction takes place when foods are heated to high temperatures, typically above 300° Fahrenheit or 150° Celsius. When amino acids and sugar molecules come into contact at these high temperatures, they undergo a series of complex reactions that result in the formation of new flavor compounds.
The Maillard reaction is a key part of many cooking methods, including grilling, roasting, and searing. It’s that sizzle when you put a food on a perfectly preheated grill or pan. With a little understanding of the Maillard reaction, you can take your cooking to new heights!
What foods undergo the Maillard reaction?
Foods that undergo the Maillard reaction include both protein items like meats for which the browning reaction is most famous for like Carne Asada, and other foods like loaves of bread and grilled vegetables.
The amino acids in these foods react with the sugar molecules under high heat to create new flavor compounds. The Maillard reaction also affects the color of food, giving it a golden brown hue, or blackened burnt bits if overdone.
Is the Maillard reaction carcinogenic?
Certain sugars, most commonly found in starchy foods like potatoes, are known to form acrymalide when cooked at higher temperatures as part of the Maillard reaction. Acrymalide has been linked to cancer in animal studies, but not yet in humans. The formation of acrymalide is due to a compound found in starches so it’s not common in other foods like meat and eggs.
Acrymalide is formed by heating starches, like potatoes or bread, under high heat for a long period of time. This means to reduce the risk you can keep your toast slightly golden brown instead of overly done.
You can read more about acrymalide here at this FAQ from the Food and Drug Administration.
Is Maillard reaction similar to caramelization?
Caramelization may cause browning when cooking the food where the Maillard reaction occurs. They both promote their heating but Maillard’s reactions involve amino acids, while caramelization involves pyrolysis.
How to say ‘Maillard’?
The Maillard reaction was first discovered by Louis-Camille Maillard, a French chemist in 1912, so the right way to say “Maillard” is with silent l’s, think ‘my – ard’.
What to Know About Caramelization
Now that we’ve covered how maillard reaction creates that amazing Maillard browning effect with amino acids, let’s cover the chemical process of caramelization. Caramelization is often confused with the Maillard reaction because they both involve sugars and occur at higher temperatures.
However, caramelization is different, because it only involves sugars (no amino acids) . Sugar reacts to heat in such a way to break down the simple sugars in the foods which turn the compounds into a tan and dark brown pigments while creating aroma compounds that create that wonderful smell.
So while both the Maillard reaction and caramelization are chemical reactions that cause enzymatic browning in foods when the surface temperature is raised in the cooking process the main difference between the two is the rearranging amino acids which occurs in the Maillard reaction.
So to choose one reaction over the other, you have to pick your ingredients carefully for the right dish. Foods with lots of amino groups will brown in the Maillard reaction and foods with no amino acids, but that do have sugars, will caramelize when cooked.
Caramelization will break down sugar compounds to enhance the sweet flavor of the sugar compounds in food which is perfect for desserts, but when the Maillard reaction occurs there’s more than just sugar, so you’ll end up with a much more complex mixture of flavors from this process including sweet, savory, and umami flavors that can serve as the building blocks of a meal.
I hope this answered your questions on the differences between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. If not, ask them in the comments below and I’ll see what I find out in my very official kitchen experiments.