Friday, November 16, 2012

The Marvellous Maillard Reaction

One of the perks of cooking is being able to smell all the delicious smells that emanate as the food cooks.  This is often more satisfying than actually eating the food; one gets saturated after a few hours of just sniffing and tasting.  I recently discovered that several of the aromas produced during baking or roasting are caused by chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars, broadly classified as the Maillard reaction.  This array of chemical reactions was discovered by the French scientist, Louis Camille Maillard as part of his PhD thesis (discovered in 1912 and published in 1913).  The reactions describe how amino acids (components of proteins) react with reducing sugars (generally found in carbohydrates).  The catalyst is often heat (provided when we begin cooking foods) and the specific reaction depends on the kind of reactants, the pH, the temperature, the water and fat content etc.

The result is a browning (which is different from caramelization) and the formation of many different molecules which have specific aromas and flavours.  These molecules can break down into other smaller molecules (each with different properties of smell and taste); thus a gamut of flavours and textures can be created.  The Maillard reaction is partly responsible for the range of brown colours (formed by compounds called melanoidins) and roasted flavours of many breads, cookies, cakes, beers and popcorn.

I did not realize how important these reactions would become in my life until I began using my cast iron pans regularly.  Of course, these reactions have always been going on in the kitchen, but I did not give them much thought and never dreamt that so many changes would belong to just one family of reactions.  I began to pay more attention to the appearance and smell of food when I bought a book on artisanal breads by Peter Reinhart and began to experiment with a different kind of baking.  These breads are made with very wet dough that is fermented slowly overnight and baked at high temperatures in a moist environment, to give rise to a distinctive outer brown crust and inner open crumb.  The moisture in the dough, the surface tension and aeration are all important as is the temperature at which it will be cooked.  I had to experiment with several different conditions to get a good loaf.

Subsequently Smokey Joe (a small turquoise blue charcoal grill) entered my life and for a while I did not know what to do with it.  In order to understand the process of grilling and barbecuing, I bought a book written by an Argentine chef, Francis Mallman.  This book is titled 'Seven Fires, Grilling The Argentine Way' and it describes seven different ways of applying heat in order to grill foods (and improvised versions for people who do not have access to traditional Argentine grills and large open spaces).  Much of the cooking is done using direct heat of different kinds or in very hot cast iron pans.  I recently began with the simplest possible dishes - crusty potatoes and charred tomatoes, both of which tasted wonderful.  This was largely because while I was throwing in the ingredients, standing back and waiting, the Maillard reaction was doing its stuff - producing crisp, brown, delicious crusts on the outside and leaving the inside tender.

For me, this is a new way of thinking about heat and ingredients - trying to get a perfect roasted or slightly charred surface without burning it, trying to gauge when food is ready by its smell and appearance, trying to retain the lightness and freshness of the food (that is so easily lost on overcooking even slightly).  Of realizing the wonders of high heat, when used in controlled ways.

I am indeed indebted to this wise French scientist and to many chefs and cooks who perfected this art over the years.  Of course, the process does not end here, one can create endless variations by tweaking these reactions.  Molecular Gastronomy is exploring these aspects in academic and commercial ways while home cooks like me are discovering a new way of enjoying the results of this chemistry.

I have no pictures of my attempts at grilling as yet.  I am attaching here some pictures of my experiments with different kinds of breads.  As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, it is unfortunate that I cannot attach the smells as well!

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