The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat. It is vitally important in the preparation or presentation of many types of food, and, like caramelization, is a form of non-enzymatic browning.
In the process, hundreds of different flavour compounds are created. These compounds, in turn, break down to form yet more new flavour compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavour compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. It is these same compounds that flavour scientists have used over the years to create artificial flavours.
Food products like caramel made from milk and sugar, roasted coffee, roasted meat, maple syrup, etc., get their particular flavours from this process. It is highly sensitive to temperature and the presence of other chemicals (ingredients) and will result in the creation of different compounds (flavours) with slight variations of these parameters. The whole process is still not yet completely understood.
What does it mean for cooks and gourmet lovers?
First, the list of ingredients on a product label is not at all a guarantee of the flavours that the product contains. For example, you may find big differences in flavour between caramels even if they all contain only milk products and sugar.
Secondly, some producers, sensitive to this issue by experience or by knowledge, have tested hundreds of variations to find out the most delicious one and have created a procedure and controls to produce the same good results systematically.
That is what marks the difference between run-of-the-mill products and those produced by meticulous artisans and connoisseurs. OGourmet is doing its best to discover these outstanding products and to let you enjoy them with confidence.
Interested in producing your own Maillard reaction? This recipe is for you: Foie gras on maple tiles.