Most good recipes will ask you to brown your food. Whether it's meat or veggies, if it's destined to go straight to a plate or slow cook in the oven, browning is often part of the process. While this certainly gives food an appetizing appearance, it's the exceptional flavor this process provides that makes it so important.
But why does it taste better? It's all thanks to something called the Maillard Reaction.
The Maillard Reaction is named after the French chemist who first described it in 1912. We're going to get a little scientific on you guys explaining it, but stick with us. This is good to know because it is one of the most important flavor-producing reactions in cooking.
On the outside, the Maillard Reaction (sometimes referred to as the browning reaction) gives food a nice brown color and crisp texture, but the reason it makes food taste so delicious is the chemical reaction that takes place. When food is cooked at high, dry heat -- which is how to best brown it -- the sugars and amino acids in the food react with the heat and produce complex molecules (which then produce more complex molecules) until hundreds of various molecules are present. And it's these molecules that are responsible for the potent aromas and flavors we love in browned foods. Thank science for good food!
There's a downside to browning food, and it's when this process has been taken too far. When foods get cooked above 180° C, a different reaction occurs: pyrolysis, which is also known as burning. Pyrolysis brings about a bitter flavor and black compounds that can be carcinogenic. No one wants that.
To get the proper browning reaction, create a hot and dry situation. If cooking meat, pat the excess moisture off with a paper towel. And don't be shy with the temperature of the skillet. Whatever you do, just don't skip this process. Your cooking will vastly improve once you master it.
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