The Maillard Reaction Is What Gives Grilled Meat Its Flavor

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There's a reason why bacon doesn't taste as good microwaved as it does fried, and why chicken doesn't taste as good boiled as it does roasted. That reason is the Maillard reaction, a phenomenon that takes place when denatured proteins and sugars meet temperatures of around 300-500 degrees Fahrenheit (150-260 degrees Celsius) and combine, making meat turn brown and taste absolutely delicious.

From the Chem Lab to the Kitchen

The reaction was named for its discoverer, French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first wrote about its browning effects in 1912. His discovery didn't gain immediate ground in kitchens, however. It wasn't until the 1940s that people understood the connection between browning and flavor, and even then, most research was performed on how to avoid the reaction because the flavor changes were considered undesirable.

Eventually, scientists were able to analyze the many thousands of aromatic and flavor compounds the Maillard reaction can produce, not only in grilled meat but in bread, coffee beans, and other foods that get more flavorful as they turn brown. These compounds include pyrazines, which lend a roasted flavor; alkylpyrazines, which impart a nutty quality; and acylpyridines, which have a cracker-like aroma. So at your next barbecue, maybe give a grill-tong salute to chef Maillard for the delicious flavors you're about to enjoy.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 1, 2016

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