The Maillard Reaction and Its Magical Effect on Steak
by HexClad Cookware
OK, chemistry nerds, it’s our time to shine. We are here today to talk about the Maillard reaction. Yes, it is a culinary process as well as a chemical reaction. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds.
We will break down the Maillard reaction from what it is to why you need it in your kitchen. We’ll also recommend what type of pan to use because we don’t want you to try this technique on just anything.
Tie up those aprons, people. HexClad is bringing the heat — and a little food science lesson.
What Is the Maillard Reaction?
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars, and it’s this reaction that gives food a brown color, just like you’ve come to expect on a perfectly-seared steak.
This process also gives you those complex flavors like the delicious sweet, savory, and char notes on steak. It’s a crucial part of creating a memorable dining experience.
Don’t feel limited to just steak or beef, though. Any food containing proteins can create a Maillard reaction during the cooking process. The sky’s the limit with the ultimate in flavor perfection.
What Makes the Maillard Reaction Happen?
The Maillard reaction was first coined by Louis-Camille Maillard, a French physician and chemist. He noticed the reaction between the sugars and amino acids or building blocks of protein when meat was heated at high temperatures (above the boiling point).
These complex reactions created flavorful compounds. Each cut of meat or other protein has a different flavor due to the varying combinations of sugar and amino acids reacting over high heat. Alkalines can help kick off the process and produce that golden brown color.
Time It Right
While the Maillard reaction produces some of the best tasting components of a steak and other browned foods, figuring out the right cooking time is crucial. If the Maillard reaction takes place for too long, food may be exposed to high heat for too long — i.e. you’ve burnt or overcooked it. The result is a tough, rubbery steak. I.e., an inedible steak.
Just Enough Heat
Essentially, heat is a critical point in the succession of the Maillard reaction. What’s interesting about it is that this process, while ideal for steaks, is the critical failure point of other ingredients, like dairy.
When dairy heats to the point of discoloration, it becomes rancid. Nobody wants that. In general, heat needs to be applied evenly and carefully. In short, heat is the key factor in creating the Maillard reaction and executing it well.
We all know what happens when you can’t stand the heat — you get out of the damn kitchen!
Cook Dry Food
The expulsion of moisture from food creates the browning process. As the temperature rises, the moisture burns off more quickly. When you add water or additional moisture to ingredients when you are creating this searing reaction, you inhibit the cooking process.
To be clear, it can still happen. However, until the water and additional moisture cook off, the browning won’t be as heavy or prevalent. Keep this in mind when adding ingredients to the pan. An overcrowded pan will take a lot longer to create a searing reaction.
If you’re thinking about adding in additional moisture, don’t. If you are adding moisture just because you feel the food needs it, you’re stopping the Maillard reaction from occurring. The food needs to be dry if you want to encourage that beautiful searing process.
Choose Your Cookware Wisely
When deciding on the right pan to use to create the ultimate browning color and flavor profile for your steak, there are a few points to consider.
While a cast iron skillet is one of the most popular options, they aren’t exactly easy to use. Cast iron is heavy and unwieldy. Many cast iron skillets have hot and cold pockets and may feel like they take a lifetime to heat up. We recommend a hybrid pan. It has the strength of a cast iron pan but with the versatility you want (and need) from your kitchen cookware.
Our 12” HexClad Hybrid Pan has the strength to perform like a cast iron skillet but with the non-stick qualities of a traditional pan. It’s the best of both worlds. Our 12” Hybrid Pan will heat up quickly and retain heat consistently. Best of all, it’s a lightweight pan with a heat-resistant handle.
Need something with a little more room for a big stir fry? Try our 14” Hybrid Wok With Lid. It’s deep enough to saute and sear your food to perfection but also big enough to cook a meal for a big hungry family. It might be the answer to roasting your favorite vegetables using the Maillard reaction.
You won’t need special tools to cook with this one either. The stainless steel surface won’t scratch or tarnish with metal utensils. Perhaps best of all — it’s dishwasher safe. Clean-up is suddenly a snap (and you can use any spatula or spoon in your arsenal).
The Maillard Reaction and Steak: What’s the Connection?
The Maillard reaction is an essential piece to the steak enjoyment puzzle. The flavor, aromas, and brown crust aesthetic it brings to the table keep us drooling and coming back for more. There’s nothing like a good steak.
Boiled Steak Sucks
As we said before, water inhibits protein's browning and caramelization process. When you boil a ribeye or a sirloin, you eliminate the chances that you’ll be able to create a seared exterior.
What do we want when we enjoy a nice juicy New York Strip? A mouthwatering, meaty experience. What do we get when we eat a boiled steak? A soggy, tough, flavorless, gray hunk of meat in our mouth.
Just don’t do it.
Pan-Frying Is a Better Alternative
Before enjoying food with our taste buds, we first need to enjoy them with our eyes and nose. The Maillard reaction checks all the boxes. The sizzle and sear of a steak in a hot pan will get your senses tingling and your mouth ready for Flavortown.
You’ll see the moisture creating little sprays and bubbles in the pan and smell the melting of the fat in a perfectly trimmed, fatty cut of beef.
The Importance of Seasonings
The heat from the pan reacts to the seasonings you put on the steak’s exterior and the moisture drawn out naturally from the meat itself. When you season the steak properly, you create a caramelized crust on the surface of the steak that seeps into the meat beautifully.
Without the proper amount of seasoning on the meat, there won’t be enough reaction when you pan-fry the steak. You won’t have the right pieces in place to create the Maillard reaction. As a result, your steak will have a flavorless quality.
Meat is delicious, but salt, pepper, and any other of your favorite spices draw out the natural deliciousness of beef. It would help if you had the seasoning to create a char outside the steak to give you a textural explosion. Use a heavy hand. Now is not the time to hold back.
Basically, don’t skimp on seasoning if you want to enjoy your beef.
The Maillard Reaction Explains Why Humans Love Protein
We need a pleasing experience for all of our senses. A pan-fried steak sounds amazing while it sizzles, smells delightful during the cooking process, and looks beautiful when browned to perfection.
Engaging all of our senses doesn’t just add to the experience; it makes the experience. We start to salivate and get excited about what’s coming. Our minds won’t get this reaction from our taste buds if we cut corners.
Boiling or under-seasoning the steak won’t draw out the same effect from the cooking process. So a boring cooking event leads to a boring and underwhelming dinner. The best way to avoid that is to lean into the flavors you want to experience and cook in a way that invigorates you before you take the first bite.
The Maillard Reaction Makes the Best Steak
If this didn’t convince you that the Maillard reaction keeps you coming back for more, we don’t know what will. A perfectly seared steak isn’t possible without the right pan, and we are sure that our hybrid technology is exactly what you need to create the perfect steak.
If you’ve ever had hopes of cooking like the pros, you’re just a few peaks and valleys away from seared perfection.