The Maillard reaction: the supreme element of good cooking

A lot can be said about ingredients, flavor combinations, and seasoning when we talk about food, but how often do we stop to reflect on the most basic element in food preparation? The one that takes food from raw to cooked, from soft to firm or vice versa, from pale to golden; the one that imparts complex aromas and flavors. It is heat.

Photo: ©Andrey Grigoriev

The Maillard reaction explains what happens to food when heat is applied. This set of chemical transformations occurs between the amino acids and sugars in food and results in the roasted aromas, textures, and tastes we crave. 

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This transforming element is essential for a handful of ingredients to coalesce and result in a dish that will tantalize taste buds. Humans have become skillful in developing different methods of applying heat, whether baking, frying, toasting, roasting, smoking, or cooking over fire. However, they all require certain considerations for our food to reach a successful end point, such as follows:

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  1. Temperature target. Applying an appropriate level of heat so that the outside and inside of the food finish cooking at the same time. For example, a cut of meat should have a seared edge and a soft center (depending on the doneness you are looking for) when it is removed from the heat. 
  2. Heat zones. Regardless of the method we use to cook our food, it is essential that we take into account the different heat zones so that cooking is uniform. In an oven, the rear part will always be the hottest, since the door lets heat escape every time we open it. In the case of the grill, the section closest to the fire will be the one that scorches the most.
  3. Heat level. An  intense heat level will be ideal for browning and making crispy surfaces with soft interiors, while a moderate one requires more time to turn firm and dry ingredients into tender and juicy ones. 
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When cooking meat, consider that soft cuts (like chicken breast) tend to become firm when cooked, while tough cuts (like shank) go through two stages. First they toughen and then, when cooked for a long period, they soften. 

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Being a good cook requires some knowledge of the reactions taking place and how using the ancestral element of heat properly can achieve delicious results. 

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