Thursday, 31 January 2013

Boost the taste of your dishes by Maillard Reaction!

     As I mentioned in my last post, the French stew was cooked by the same technique that I learned in 2 other stews from my classes. Basically, you brown the meat first, then you continue baking the meat in the oven in some kind of sauce/stock. Prior to my cooking classes, I have only watched my mom making beef stews and never really made one myself.  The Chinese way of making stews is quite different: you first blanch the meat in boiling water, after you skim out the floating impurities, you add soy sauce, cooking alcohol and other spices and slowly finish cooking the meat on the stove (an easier alternative is to use a pressure cooker). "Browning the meat" was a foreign concept to me. So I did some reading, and found out that this "browning reaction" actually has a name. It's called the Maillard reaction. 
bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide
     The Maillard reaction was discovered by Louis-Camille Maillard in the early 20th century, when he was trying to heat up amino acids and sugars and the mixture turned brown.The molecules produced by amino acids and the reducing sugars absorb light and create a nice brown pigment in cooked meatHowever, the colouring of the food is not the only outcome from the reaction. What is more important is that the reaction enhances the flavours and aromas. Like in roast beef, cysteine, an amino acid in protein, reacts with ribose, a sugar in the meat. Together, they produce a sulfurous molecule, bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide, which is responsible for the distinct smell of beef! Other amino acids and sugars are involved in similar Maillard reactions in baked goods.
     As for many chemical processes, temperature needs to be carefully monitored. The Maillard reaction proceeds at a fairly high temperature of 130 ºC/265 ºF. If the meat surface is covered in water, the temperature will stop climbing when it reaches 100 ºC, at which temperature water evaporates and you can't really go any higher than that. This is why when you brown the meat, the surface needs to stay dry so that the heat will exceed 100 ºC. However, if you over heat the meat, at 180 ºC or higher, pyrolysis (a.k.a., burning) kicks in and it will burn the meat instead. I guess the Maillard reaction is one of those high-maintenance reactions that require your undivided attention. Luckily for people like me, who have short attention spans, browning happens fast and it usually takes 2-4min per side of the meat. 
     Happy browning, my carnivorous friends!




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