In the space of a few years, the term Maillard has crept into our everyday language to such an extent that it is often used to by those wishing to flaunt their scientific knowledge of cooking. So what do we actually mean when we refer to the Maillard reaction?
Throw a slice of steak into a very hot pan, give it a minute or so to sizzle properly and smell the aroma: this is the Maillard reaction to which we owe, apart from the delicious smell, the roasted flavour of a piece of meat – and not only meat – when cooked at a high temperature.
Some use the term “caramelized”, unaware that caramelization is a different reaction. In fact, in the case of Maillard, the real protagonists are proteins, of which meat is plentiful.
Proteins are chains consisting of tiny interconnected building blocks called amino acids. When exposed to a high temperature, they interact with the natural sugar content of meat to form glucosamine in the first place, followed by a series of Amadori and Heyns compounds. The situation which follows is one of authentic chaos which, even today, makes the Maillard reaction very elusive and variable.
According to certain parameters such as the quantity of sugar, the environmental pH and the amino acids involved, there can be countless possible reactions. For example, have you ever noticed that red meat, when roasted, tastes very differently from chicken cooked in the same way?
This occurs because red meat is rich in cysteine, an amino acid which, starting from the initial phases of the Maillard reaction, interacts with sugar to form thiophenes and thiazoles. It is sufficient to change just one amino acid, and the result will give us completely different flavours and aromas. For this reason, it is erroneous to refer to the “Maillard reaction”, in the singular form: in actual fact, A GREAT NUMBER of different reactions exist.
To complicate matters further, temperature also contributes to this variability. Basically, the Maillard reaction is triggered at approximately 140 °C, but it is important for the heat to be applied intensely and rapidly. Have you ever wondered why no Maillard reaction occurs in boiled meat? Because the maximum temperature it reaches is around 100 °C, owing to the presence of water.
On the contrary, frying enables an excellent Maillard reaction: the process takes place in a water-free environment at a very high temperature. This leads us to a further consideration: moisture threatens to ruin the reaction. The reason for this will now be perfectly clear to you: the presence of water on the meat surface prolongs the cooking time and lowers the temperature since it takes longer for the liquid to evaporate. The consequent risk is that of not reaching the desired temperature of 140°C rapidly.
Now, let’s try to draw some useful conclusions. First and foremost, a successful Maillard reaction, in other words, a well-browned steak with its unmistakable “roasted” aroma, depends on the meat being perfectly dry. To achieve this, dab it with absorbent kitchen roll and leave it to rest at room temperature for a couple of hours prior to cooking: the cooking process takes place at such a high temperature and for such a short time, that the centre of the steak must not be too cold otherwise it risks being completely raw.
Then, brush the surface of the meat with oil. On one hand, the fat insulates the steak when in contact with the pan or grill, and prevents it from sticking. On the other hand, it enables the even distribution of heat and the formation of the delicious Maillard “crust” all over the surface. Finally, let’s not forget that grilling is an excellent cooking method but a heavy iron pan is just as good: the surface of the pan enables the meat to be cooked more rapidly and evenly.