Developing flavour by browning the meat

Why does a barbecued steak taste so good? The answer is the browning reaction or Maillard reaction. Browning meat is an important step in several cooking methods, producing tasty meat.

In the process of cooking meat many chemical changes occur, affecting the appearance, taste and texture of the meat. Searing or browning the outer, lean surface of meat, usually at a fairly high temperature develops the flavour and colour of the meat.

The Maillard reaction starts at the surface of the meat. It occurs at temperatures above 154oC.  That’s why meat cooked via a dry heat source over a high heat will brown and meat cooked via a wet method will not (boiling point of water is 100oC). It’s why a roast is tastier than say plain boiled meat (if you remove any additional flavour ingredients).

The browning reaction happens when the natural sugar and the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in meat are heated. As these compounds are heated together the meat will slowly turn brown and produce a range of flavoured molecules responsible for the colour, flavour and aroma of well-browned meat.

The benefits of browning

  • Browning meat gives it a richer, deeper more complex flavour.
  • Well-browned meat is very appealing to the eye.
  • A well-browned piece of meat cooking at the appropriate temperature gives a wonderful aroma – think of a steak cooking on a barbecue.

The first step when barbecuing or pan-frying meat is browning or searing the meat, here are our tips for the best result:

  • Use a heavy based grill or pan for maximum heat retention
    Meat needs to sear quickly as it hits the pan. A heavy based pan will heat evenly and hold its heat during the cooking process. Preheat the barbecue or pan before you begin to brown
  • Ensure the barbecue is hot before you cook
    The degree at which a pan is heated for pan-frying will depend on the pan and the heat source. As a guide it may take 1-2 minutes of preheating over a moderately high heat to achieve the best temperature. Be kind to your pan, start the pan on lower heat and then raise the temperature. The heat should be at a level that is enough to keep the meat sizzling without burning.
  • Ensure the meat is dry – wet meat will not brown
    Moisture will make the meat stick to the pan or grill (particularly if the pan or grill is not sufficiently hot). This is important when taking meat from a marinade, use a paper towel to blot away excess liquid before placing meat on the barbecue or grill-plate or fry-pan.
  • Brush the meat with oil rather than add oil to the pan
    This ensures the meat does not stick to the grill or pan allowing it to brown well, giving good colour and flavour.
  • Do not overcrowd the pan or grill plate
    This reduces the heat and the meat will then release juices and begin to stew. Use a pan that suits the number of pieces to be cooked. Overcrowding the pan will trap the meat juices in the bottom and the meat will stew. If the pan is too large the meat juices will burn in the areas where the meat does not cover them.

Browning meat for casseroles or braised dishes

Well-browned meat will have intensified flavour, this is why the first step of braising or casseroling meat is to brown the meat. This step is the foundation to a full flavoured result. Meat that is simply tossed in the liquid for a stew or braise will have much less flavour.

Try to always:

  • Cut the meat into 2cm cubes, not any smaller as the meat will shrink as it cooks.
  • Coat with oil instead of adding oil to the dish.
  • Brown the meat in small batches. Overcrowding the pan with too much meat will reduce the heat in the pan the meat will stew.
  • Keep the pan at medium high heat, this helps the brown evenly rather than stew, or burn in the pan.

More about the Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction, also known as the browning reaction, is the phenomenon responsible for turning meat brown, converting bread to toast and turning beer brown, along with hundreds of other examples. It is named for Louis-Camille Maillard, a French chemist who happened upon this reaction whilst studying amino acids during the early 1900s.

In simple terms, certain foods contain carbohydrates in the form of sugars, while others contain amino acids in the form of proteins. These sugars and amino acids often exist side-by-side, as in the case of raw meats. They may also be blended together, as in the case of bread dough. As long as there is no outside catalyst, or cause for change, the meat remains red and the bread dough remains white.

This reaction is the catalyst for change, primarily by the addition of heat. When bread dough or meat is introduced to a hot oven or pan, a complex chemical reaction occurs on the surface. The carbon molecules contained in the sugars, or carbohydrates, combine with the amino acids of the proteins. The end result of this chemical recombination is the Maillard reaction. The surface of the heated bread dough is now brown, as is the outer layer of the cooked meat.

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