December 14, 2016

When you attend culinary academy, you learn a lot about the principles that go into making exceptional dishes. One of the most important of these concepts is the Maillard reaction, which named for the early twentieth-century French chemist who described it, Louis-Camille Maillard. This chemical reaction is the reason why browned meat and vegetables taste so good. Every chef can benefit from a basic understanding of the chemistry that makes meals delicious.

What is the Maillard reaction?
While you can clearly see the Maillard reaction at work when meat browns, Modernist Cuisine emphasized that it’s about more than color. Rather, what really matters is the changes in amino acids and sugars, producing the smells and flavors that make many of our favorite baked, grilled, fried or roasted foods appealing. Different foods produce different flavor compounds, so the reaction can lead to a wide range of results, including the tastes we associate with roasted coffee, malted barley and fried onions.

“The Maillard reaction is about more than color.”

Chefs achieve this change by using a high-temperature cooking method to dehydrate the food’s surface. The reaction starts to happen when the surface reaches a heat above 285 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to speed up the process, it’s often a good idea to remove any moisture from the exterior of the food with a towel before cooking.

Not every dish calls for this high-temperature method. Boiling, steaming or poaching will result in different tastes that are preferable in many cases. When you do strive for browning, however, keep in mind that heat control is essential. Surface temperatures above 355 degrees will start off different reactions and may lead to food that is burned rather than nicely seared.

Perfectly crusted pork chops
One of the many dishes that can benefit from a solid understanding of the Maillard reaction is pork chops. When it comes to meat, it’s important to strike a balance between searing a crisp, dark, flavorful crust and maintaining a juicy interior, as in the method suggested by Serious Eats. Before you start cooking, season the chops in a mixture of salt and sugar and refrigerate them for at least eight hours.

Set the pork on a baking sheet and place in an oven set to 250 degrees. Cook for about 35 minutes, checking for an internal temperature of 110 degrees. Then, it’s time to remove the meat from the oven and apply the sear.

Place oil in a skillet and set over high heat, waiting for it to begin to smoke. Set the pork chops in the skillet and cook for about a minute and half, or until they start browning. Add a sliced shallot, sprigs of thyme and butter to the mix to cook for another two minutes, forming a delicious crust. Rest the pork chops for a few minutes, and pour the hot pan drippings over the top before serving.

Roasted vegetables are among the many dishes that benefit from cooking at high temperatures.Roasted vegetables are among the many dishes that benefit from cooking at high temperatures.

Make winter veggies wonderful
The same chemical reaction can serve you well if you want to prepare roasted vegetables that both satisfyingly crisp on the outside and pleasantly tender inside, while cooking at lower temperatures risks mushiness.. Bon Appetit offered several tips for achieving the best results, starting with chopping the produce to a similar size for even cooking. Set the veggies on a baking dish with a light coating of oil, avoiding crowding them too close together.

Set the oven to a high temperature, around 450 degrees, to get the Maillard effect working. Roast for 35 to 45 minutes, giving the vegetables a stir or two. The heat will also lead to pleasant caramelization for carbohydrate-heavy root vegetables like carrots.

You can thank the Maillard reaction for the great tastes and textures of many of your favorite foods. As you work toward an online culinary arts certificate, you’ll learn how to turn this bit of chemistry to your advantage in a huge variety of dishes.

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