Monday, February 25, 2008

Two Basics

There are two basic scientific principles that you must master if you are ever to become a really serious cook.

They are, respectively, caramelization and the Maillard reaction.

To the untrained naked eye, they appear similar ("browning of food") but they are really quite different.

Caramelization is the oxidation of sugar in the presence of heat. This is actually reasonably rare.

The Maillard reaction is a reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar in the presence of heat. Identified by Louis-Camille Maillard, this is single-handedly the most important idea in virtually any cuisine all around the world. There would be no "flavor" without this one.

Just to give you an idea of the ubiquity, and the importance of this, here's a short list of places which are all Maillard:
  • Bread crust, toasted bread
  • Condensed milk
  • Roasted/seared/grilled meats
  • Roasted coffee
  • Milk caramel
  • Roasted nuts
  • Stock making
  • roux
  • roasted barley (= beer)
What the Chinese call wok hay is Maillard. Your grilled hamburger owes its taste to Maillard. Your browned cheese crust which is, oh so delicious, is nothing more than Maillard.

Please note that the two processes are not mutually exclusive. They may be taking place at the same time.

To master food, your must first master Master Maillard!

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