Imagine a flavourful grilled steak, perfectly charred on the outside and almost rare inside. Imagine the scent of caramelized spices; the delicate and well-balanced taste. Sound simple? The truth is that cooking a luscious piece of meat over a grill – or on a barbecue or even in a pan – requires knowing a million secrets that may escape even the most expert cooks. One needs speed, experience and an acute sense of timing. And one should be well aware of the simple chemical reaction that takes place, the same one that’s the basis for any cooking method requiring high temperatures – like, for instance, a barbecue.
This reaction has a name: the Maillard reaction, which honours the French scientist who lived and worked between the 19th and 20th Centuries. Maybe you’ve heard the Maillard reaction mentioned in cookbooks or on television shows, but why is it so important? Because it involves the cooking of both proteins and sugars, which occurs frequently in the kitchen. It’s the same process that helps to create that succulent crust that forms on the surface of an ideal steak.
Describing the Maillard reaction in detail is the job of chemistry textbooks, but knowing how it works is any cook’s ticket to successfully cooking a cut of meat. And it’s a low-cost ticket: the reaction consists of three passages in which the substances in the meat become burnished, juicy and glazed. Of course, really understanding the Maillard reaction is complex, but what a non-science-oriented chef should keep in mind are three things: temperature, pH and the makeup of the ingredients – namely, the kind of meat we choose to cook with. Once you act with regards to these three elements, you’re setting the Maillard reaction in motion. And a perfect steak is yours when you want it.
Let’s begin with the base ingredient: the meat. Choose whichever you prefer, but remember that if it’s too lean it should be brushed with high-temperature oil like peanut oil or seed oil. Then heat the grill or the broiling pan to the correct temperature, which should be higher than 140°C and lower than 170°C so the meat doesn’t burn. Once the right temperature has been reached, you can put the meat on the surface. And don’t, under any circumstances, touch it for at least a couple of minutes – although the exact timing does vary according to the meat’s thickness. Let Maillard’s reaction simply run its course, forming the delicious odours and flavours. Only then should the meat be turned, and left untouched for another couple of minutes. If the cut is very thick and you like it medium rare, you can then put it in a pre-heated 230°-240°C oven. Another couple of minutes on each side and it will be divine. The last step? Wrap the steak in aluminium foil and let it rest for two or three minutes so that the internal liquids get evenly distributed, which makes for a juicy steak. The final touch: a bit of salt and extra-virgin olive oil.
Remember, even if you don’t entirely understand it, Maillard’s reaction is all about pH: the lower it is – and the more acidic the meat is – the better the result. To successfully obtain the perfect acidity, wine and spice marinades come in handy. And here is where you can play around: knowing the Maillard reaction is good, but a great cook should also love to experiment.