Loretta Mugo is a Food Scientist by training who is currently obtaining her Masters in Food Safety and Quality. She regularly writes on matters in different aspects of food, nutrition and lifestyle. This month, Loretta let’s us in on one of the secrets of some of our most loved foods.
It makes steak mouthwateringly good, bacon taste like heaven and chocolate one hell of a temptation. It is one of the most important chemical reactions in the human diet. Nyama choma, chocolate, cookies, chapati, toasted bread; all the foods we absolutely love come about as a chia result of this complex chemistry.
This is the “Maillard Reaction” or to you— but not me, as it’s my job to know this stuff— the browning reaction that gives all protein- and carbohydrate-based foods their burst of flavour, aroma and brown colour. Foods that are fried, grilled or roasted, gain their flavour as a result of a complex chemical process discovered by the French physician and chemist Louis-Camille Maillard in 1912.
The Maillard reaction is essentially the combination of amino acids and sugars in foods, under high temperature cooking. The reaction occurs in a series of five steps that yield hundreds of chemical compounds. The most important aspect of this reaction is not the colour but the flavour. In fact, colloquially calling it the browning reaction is rather incomplete: it should be known as ‘the flavour reaction’. To really impress during BBQ nights, here are some tips on how to make the Maillard reaction work for you:
Optimizing the Maillard reaction in nyama choma
To maximise the flavour of grilled steak or ribs, the first thing to consider is the cooking temperature. Temperatures of between 110 and 170 degrees Celsius are perfect to induce the Maillard reaction. Anything above 180 degrees Celcius will trigger a different set of reactions called pyrolysis or as it’s better known, burning. Go easy on the charring as pyrolysis lends the meat a bitter flavour and the black compounds formed are potential carcinogens.
Pat dry the surface of your preferred meat before placing it on your sizzling grill. If the meat is wet/damp it will take too long to evaporate the water, which will slow the reaction and essentially boil your meat.
Marinating the meat beforehand not only adds flavour but is another way to enhance the Maillard reaction. Marinades generally contain acids which partially denature (coagulate) the proteins that would have otherwise been broken down by heat. The already acid denatured proteins, combine with the sugars faster and this in turn increases the rate of reaction.
When choosing ingredients to marinade with, bear in mind that acids below the pH of 3 such as vinegar or wine minimize the rate of reaction. On the other hand, higher alkaline pH ingredients such as baking soda and lemons or limes speeds the reaction rate. You’ll find that adding a pinch of baking soda to your marinade puts your meat on the fast lane to flavour town.
The different types of proteins in different foods dictate the taste of the final product which is the reason not all Maillard proteins taste like bacon, much as we may wish they did. Nevertheless, we owe all the delicious richness and depth of flavour in our sizzling steaks to chemistry. Come to think of it, it could get boring if all our food tasted like bacon…