The Maillard Reaction: It’s Why Browned Food Tastes So Good

If you’ve ever reached for the browned bit of cheese in your quesadilla or slow-cooked brisket, you’ve already sampled the Maillard reaction. It’s so complex that it's only in the last few years that scientists have begun to figure out what it actually is. While they still don't entirely understand it, they do know the basics: The Maillard reaction is many small, simultaneous chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars in and on your food are transformed by heat, producing new flavors, aromas, and colors. The Maillard reaction was discovered in 1912 by French chemist Louis Camille Maillard, whose research originally focused on kidney disorders. Practically speaking, the Maillard reaction makes food more enticing, encouraging us to dig into a steak, a pizza, or a hot cup of coffee. As an example, a burger is composed of a basic set of building blocks: proteins, sugars, and water. The Maillard reaction is what can happen to those proteins and sugars when heat and time are added to the equation. The end result is a juicy, aromatic, flavor-packed burger that makes your mouth water. It's another reminder that cooking is just edible science — the Maillard reaction is our geeky foundation, recipes our experiments, and we are the scientists.