On a quest to better understand the science of cooking, Kelly Green G&CC’s Executive Chef Drew Tait gives his take on one of the most important flavor-producing reactions.
I have always been the type of cook who wants to know why something is done in a certain way. I’m not satisfied with just knowing how. Chefs I’ve worked under would often get irritated with me because I asked so many questions. I can distinctly remember one chef saying, “Drew, pretend I’m not here! Just do what you know you can do!”
But I had so many questions. I wondered why we brown a pork shoulder before braising it. And why classic onion soup calls for an onion brulée as a flavoring and coloring agent. And why poaching produces a different flavor than boiling, roasting or grilling.
To get answers, I turned to the first edition of the original Professional Chef series, which I read from cover to cover during culinary school. This is where I discovered the “Maillard Reaction.” I learned how critical this reaction it is for developing complex flavors and how it’s one of the most important flavor-producing reactions in cooking. I was fascinated by the scientific explanation and I knew that I had to understand this process more so I could connect it to what I was doing every day in the kitchen.
The Maillard Reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and carbohydrates that give cooked food its distinctive flavor. The reaction happens when meats, seafood, vegetables, cookies, breads and pastries are cooked at temperatures above 285°F. Most people think that the browning food is what happens during this reaction. And while it’s true that foods do become brown when you cook them at high temperatures, there’s more here than color. It’s about flavors and aromas.
The French scientist Louis Camille Maillard began studying this reaction in 1912 and it has continued to be studied for over the last century. Even though all of this time has been invested in understanding Maillard reactions, they are so complex that still many reactions and pathways are unknown. What is known is that hundreds of different flavor compounds are created during the Maillard reaction. These compound, in turn, continually change to form new flavor compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction and scientists have used these different compounds to produce artificial flavors. It’s believed that in one piece of cooked steak there are over 600 different individual flavor compounds.
Think about this in terms of how it plays a part in club cooking. We flour a chicken breast to get a good sear on it or grill a steak or deglaze a pan to make an a la minute sauce. The more understanding you have about this reaction the more it will help you develop complex flavors in your food. It is also a great way to blend science and cooking when you are teaching younger chefs the importance of proper cooking techniques.
One strategy that works well to enhance this reaction is to remove as much water from the surface of the product as possible before cooking by blotting with a towel. Fast heating using sauté pans, deep fryers, superhot griddles, grills, cast-iron skillets and even blowtorches are helpful tools to help produce this reaction, too.
The next time you’re starting a new recipe, think about how important the Maillard reaction is to what you’re doing. Think about how a good hard sear on the outside of a pork shank is really hundreds and hundreds of different reactions happening to produce complex flavors. Hopefully you can use this knowledge to enhance your cooking, to make better food for your members and to get a young line cook to understand why things have been done a certain way for centuries.