Posts Tagged ‘maillard’

Maximizing Food Flavor by Speeding Up the Maillard Reaction

Monday, June 4th, 2012


Is there a way to speed up the browning of onions? (Photo: Frying onion from Bigstock)

An idea that struck me once was to add baking soda to browning onions. I chopped an onion, melted butter in a frying pan, and added the onions together with a pinch of baking soda. And voilà (as Louis-Camille Maillard himself would have said): the color of the onions changed faster than without the baking soda. The taste of the browned onions was remarkably sweet and caramel-like, and compared with conventionally browned onions, they were softer—almost a little mushy. By the addition of baking soda, I had changed the outcome of an otherwise trivial and everyday chemical reaction, and the result seemed interesting from a gastronomic perspective!

The idea of the baking soda addition was not taken out of the blue but based on (more…)

Speeding up the Maillard reaction

Friday, September 26th, 2008


Ever thought about how pretzels and salt sticks get their nice brown color?

The products of the Maillard reaction provide tastes, smells and colors that are much desired and lend their charachteristics to a variety of foods. In this post I will focus on the factors that influence how fast the Maillard reaction proceeds. And more specifically I’ll give examples on how the Maillard reaction can be speeded up. This is not about fast food, nor is it about saving time. It’s more about controlling the browning reaction by speeding it up or slowing it down in order to get a desired end result.

The Maillard reaction is, to put it simple, a reaction between an amino acid and a sugar (there’s more on the chemistry at the end of the post). To speed it up you can do one or more of the following:
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The science of BBQ

Friday, April 4th, 2008

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Photo by spielzimmer via flickr.com (CC).

Eric Devlin over at Home of BBQ interviewed me via email about BBQ and molecular gastronomy. The topic should be of interest to the readers of Khymos as well, so I post the questions and answers in extenso here for your benefit.

Q. Martin, thank you for taking the time to discuss the science of BBQ. Before we get into ‘low and slow’ cooking, can you tell us a bit about your background and your interest in food?
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I have a PhD in chemistry and currently I’m working as a research scientist. When I first became interested in the connection between food and chemistry in the late 90′s, I searched the Internet without finding much information. I did however find some very interesting books in the faculty library, including Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”. Having found books about the subject, I soon started to give popular science presentations. In 2004 I was invited to attend the “International Workshop on Molecular Gastronomy” in Erice, Sicily. This was a great experience and I enjoyed meeting many of the scientists, writers and chefs involved with molecular gastronomy. The website I’ve put up, Khymos, is in many ways what I would have liked to find at the time I became interested in the subject.

Q. Over the past few years we have been hearing quite a bit about how food cooked over a hot flame can have increased carcinogens. Would food that is cooked for a longer period of time over a lower heat be safer?

The carcinogens are formed when meat gets burnt, so although you’d like to use high heat to get the Maillard reaction going (which gives you both flavor and color) you don’t want to overdo it. But even if the meat gets a little burnt, it is a good thing that for the carcinogens, as for all other substances, the poison is in the dose. So if you eat grilled meat every day you should be concerned about this, but for most people I think overeating poses a much greater risk!

Q. Serious BBQ cooks like to produce a ‘bark’ when preparing pork for their pulled pork dishes. Usually the natural ‘bark’ of the meat is enhanced by the sugar found in the dry rubs that are applied. Is there any other method that could be used to achieve or increase those results? Maybe an egg wash prior to cooking?

There are several processes which contribute to the flavor formation. First you have the sugars which caramelize. As you correctly state, this is enhanced by adding sugar to the rubs. Furthermore you have the Maillard reaction were sugars react with amino acids to form a host of compounds which contribute both flavor and color. Even though the Maillard reaction can take place at low temperature (such as in vintage champagne), things really speed up when temperature rises above 110-120 °C. Obviously to reach this temperature you’ll have to get rid of the water first. So using a dry rub makes sense. Apart from that it’s mostly about being patient. Use fresh spices, and where possible whole spices that you ground prior to use. The heat of the grill will toast the spices, thereby intensifying the flavor even more.

I must admit that I have never made nor tasted meat which was prepared with a “bark”, so I don’t dare to go into further details concerning how to improve it. The best thing would be to cook two pieces of meat in parallel, for instance with and without an egg wash to see which one comes out best.

Q. BBQ sauces vary greatly depending on region. Carolina sauces are often thin, while Kansas City and Texas sauces have greater viscosity. If a cook is making a sauce that comes out too thin, what recommendations would you have to thicken it?

You either have to take out some of the water by letting it boil over low heat in a large, wide pot, or you can add a thickening agent such as corn starch. If you use onions, these will help thicken your sauce if you let it boil for a while.

Q. In competitions, some BBQ pit-masters utilize a flavor enhancer called FAB B, which contains msg. The thought behind this additive is that after a judge has consumed numerous samples of the same category of meat, the additive will stimulate the taste buds and help to separate that entry from the rest. Can you recommend any other method of ‘waking the taste buds’ without detracting from the taste?

The problem with this explanation is that if everyone uses FAB, will there be any effect at all? If the idea is to rinse the mouth you would want something acidic which stimulates saliva production, some tannic compounds to bind proteins and perhaps some alcohol to help solubilize fats. Heston Blumentahl at the Fat Duck made a “Green tea sour mousse” from these guidelines.

But even so adaption and habituation occurs in all tasting. I’ve discussed this extensively in a blog post, and the easy answer is variation. Or more scientifically: increased sensing by contrast amplification. Eat something which is as far from meat as you can come, something which is cold, crisp, fresh and acidic (did someone mention a tasty salad?). This will make the next piece of meat taste much better!

Q. FAB contains the following: Hydrolyzed soy protein, vegetable oil (soybean and or corn, cottonseed), sodium phosphates, mono sodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium inosinate and guanylate, xanthan gum. They claim that it enhances natural meat flavors, makes your BBQ juicier, improves texture for better slicing and taste and increases yields. Would you believe that these claims are accurate? Would you recommend other methods to achieve the same results?

I would like to emphasize that MSG’s bad reputation is somewhat undeserved. MSG is the salt of a naturally occurring amino acids and is found in many foods. Parmesan and tomatoes contain lots of it (ever wondered why the Italians sprinkle so much parmesan on their food?). Protein and yeast are excellent sources for MSG and the related compounds listed, so I absolutely believe the claim that FAB will enhance the meaty flavors. When FAB is used in a marinade, the phosphates enhance juiciness and improve texture (more on this later). This is well documented. But even so, every chef should remember that FAB or other products can only make good meat better. Therefore you should pay close attention to the quality of the meat you use.

Q. What is a smoke ring and how is it created? What is the best method of producing a significant smoke ring?

When wood or coal burns, small amounts of nitrogen dioxide is formed which dissolves in the surface of the meat, thereby creating nitrous acid. The acid diffuses further into the meat, and when converted to nitric oxide it reacts with myoglobin to form a stable pink colored molecule.

Q. Is there a point of delineating returns, where a piece of meat will no longer absorb the flavor of the wood that it is cooked with? Are you wasting your time by adding more wood for flavor after a certain point?

Frankly, I don’t know. I think this question should be answered by a chef!

Q. How effective is brining and marinating such as pork shoulder or brisket? How much penetration can you reasonably expect? As competitors often work with a short time frame, is there a way to speed up the results of a marinade? And if alcohol burns off, what’s the advantage of using wine instead of juice? Does the alcohol “do” something before it burns off?

Marinades penetrate meat very slowly, so it should primarily be regarded as a way of adding taste to the surface of the meat (which it does very well). An exception here is chicken and fish which are more easily penetrated by marinades. To speed up marination, use water based, concentrated marinades and leave the meat at room temperature. Piercing the meat with a jaccard will allow the marinade to work from the “inside” as well.

It is perfectly fine to use wine in a marinade. The alcohol will dissolve some fat which can speed up penetration. Wine also contains organic acids which can have a tenderizing effect. Phenolic compounds (tannins) will react with meat proteins to form insoluble complexes which in turn makes meat more juicy and tender (even though the exact reason for this is not understood). Experiments have shown that red wine works better than white in marinades.

An interesting thing with marinades is that to maximize the water retaining capacity of beef, your marinade should not contain both acids and salt as this will in fact lower the water holding capacity! If you go for acids, you can easily add salt later on.

Brining, which is immersing meat in water with about 5% salt, does make sense as the salt helps untangle protein strands. This allows spices to penetrate the meat more easily, and it renders meat juicier. Furthermore it lowers the temperature at which the proteins become “cooked”.

Q. Would searing a piece of meat help to ‘seal’ the juices and allow for a more moist cut?

No. As Harold McGee pointed out, “searing is not sealing”. The only reason to sear meat is to get the Maillard reaction going.

Q. What recommendations would you give to someone that is cooking over wood in a smoker if they wanted to achieve a crisp skin on chicken?

In a smoker the low heat will only be enough to evaporate the water, but only very slowly turn the tough collagen into tender gelatin. To achieve this you’ll need a higher temperature, preferably temperatures around 80-90 °C. But even in a smoker there are a couple of things you can do to improve the crispiness. Use a chicken which has been dry-processed. Alternatively, let the chicken dry uncovered in the fridge for a day. Oiling the skin will improve the heat transfer. You can also pierce the skin to let the juices evaporate.

Q. Barbecuing is often seen as the art of taking a piece of meat that is tough and/or stringy and producing a tender, mouthwatering meal from it. What is it that occurs that renders a tough cut like brisket into a soft, enjoyable meat? Is there anything that can be done to enhance those efforts?

The muscle fibers themselves are tender, but they are held together by connective tissue of which collagen is most abundant. Collagen is tough, but when heated it slowly dissolves and forms gelatin which is very tender. Collagen in young animals dissolves more easily than that of older animals. Collagen starts do dissolve around 70 °C and at 90 °C it dissolves rapidly. But before the temperature get this high enzymes which are present in the meat will help tenderize it. These enzymes lose their activity between 40 and 50 °C, but when you barbecue at low heat the meat will spend quite some time below 40-50 °C.

Q. Why do some meats, after reaching optimal tenderness, seem to get even more tender the longer you cook, while others tend to get tougher if you cook past ideal time?

Preparing meat is more about temperature than time. If you like your beef medium rare you would aim for the center to be 55 °C. Continued heating will cause more proteins to denature and as the contract, water is expelled leaving the dry and rubbery. Unless you have prepared your meat at a temperature very close to the desired temperature of the center, there will be a temperature gradient. So even if you remove the meat from your heating source when the center reaches the desired temperature, the warmer outside of the meat will continue to cook the center as it rests, bringing it outside your desired temperature range. It takes experience to know exactly when to remove the meat from the heat.

Q. What’s happening to the meat during “resting”? Why is this recommended prior to cutting and serving?

Apart from the leveling out of the temperature gradient discussed in the previous question it is a very good idea let meat rest before serving, as this improves the water holding capacity of the meat. This in turn reduces the amount of juice you loose when you carve or slice the meat.

Practical molecular gastronomy, part 3

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Get a basic understanding of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance.

Since a lot of cooking involves temperature manipulations, it’s a good idea to get a basic understandning of how heat is transferred and how well it is stored in different materials. “Heat” in this context does not imply high temperature since it also applies to the understanding of freezing/thawing.

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Closeup of ceramic stove top

Heat transfer

Conduction: flow of heat through an object or between two objects in contact. Metals are typically good conducters whereas air is a poor heat conductor.

Convection: heat transfer occurs because particles are moved from a warm region to a colder one. One can say that convection is a combination of conduction and mixing. For example, convection occurs when heating water since its density varies with temperature – warm water is lighter than cold water and will float. This video illustrates convection currents in water as a crystal of potassium permanganate dissolves (this salt is not edible).

Radiation: in the kitchen we encounter two types of heat transfer by radiation corresponding to two different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The heat we feel from hot burning charcoal, a stove top or the sun are all a result of infrared radiation. The other type is microwave radiation. Heat transfer by radiation does not require a material for the heat to pass through (as a consequence, a blowing wind will not have any significant effect when grilling). Microwaves easily penetrate plastic, glass and wood, but not metal. Infrared radiation is blocked by opaque materials.

Heat capacity and heat conductance

Heat capacity: the heat requried to raise the temperature of the material. Water has a very high heat capacity, metals (shown in red) generally a low heat capacity.

Heat conductance: how well heat flows through the material. Some metals (shown in red in the graph) are excellent heat conductors (silver, copper, aluminum), others less so (iron and stainless steel). All other materials (shown in blue) are generellay poor heat conductors.

The heat capacity (or to be precise, the specific heat capacity – which means heat capacity per weight unit) and the heat conductance of materials encountered in the kitchen are plotted in the the graph below:

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(for the technically interested, the plot units are Wm-1K-1 for the heat conductance and Jg-1K-1 for the specific heat capacity)

For a more extensive treatment of heat transfer, heat capacity and heat conductance (+ more on cooking methods and materials) in a gastronomical setting, I recommend the Gourmet Engineering Lecture Notes for a very interesting course given at Tufts University in Medford, MA, USA. Cooking for Engineers also has a nice post on heat transfer and browning of foods and one on common materials of cookware (with comprehensive comparisons of different materials used).

Examples related to food preparation and handling

  • Convection ovens utilize fans to circulate hot air allowing reduced cooking times and temperatures. Because of efficient convection, two or more trays can be baked simultaneously.
  • In a steam oven water is introduced to increase the humidity (this can also be done by spraying water into the hot oven). Heat transfer is more efficient due to 1) the higher heat capacity of humid air and 2) the energy released when steam condenses onto the surface (it’s the energy it took to boil the water in the first place). For bread, the condesed water prevents the surface from drying out which facilitates the exapansion of the loaf. Furthermore, the hot surface causes starch to gelatinize and subsequently dry into a delicate crust.
  • Water will cool faster than the same volume of a thickened soup because of less resistance to the convection currents in water. The amount of convection decreases in the following order: water > chicken soup > creamy soup > thick onion soup > porridge. In the latter heat is transferred by conduction only from the interior to the exterior (where heat transfer proceeds mainly by radiation and conduction). This will also affect cooling times, which is of importance with regard to microbial safety (food should be cooled rapidly past the window from 30-60 °C where microorganism thrive).
  • For rapid defrosting, place the frozen food in cold water or on a metal object – this will allow an efficient transport of heat to the frozen food. Defrosting in a microwave is not easy because most of the water molecules are locked in rigid structure and even microwaves cannot make them move (they only melt by conduction of heat from melted neighbouring areas).
  • To freeze icecream or a parfait, use a metal container as this will allow a faster dissipation of the heat in the freezer.
  • When whipping cream, it’s essential to keep the temperature low (otherwise the fat will melt). Use a thick glas bowl and cool it in the freezer before whipping.
  • When cooking meat in a pan or on a grill, notice how the surface browns relatively fast compared to the time it takes for the interioir of the meat to heat up. Heat transfer to the surface by radiation or conduction is very efficient compared to conduction of heat through meat itself. Therefore it’s advisable to fry/grill the meat at high temperature first to get a nice browning, then let the meat rest for 5-10 min to allow for heat conduction to the interioir (cover with aluminum foil to reduce radiative heat loss), followed by a second frying/grilling at lower temperature until desired doneness.
  • In an oven, the heating caused by radiation can be increased by moving food closer to the walls or reduced by wrapping the food with reflective aluminum foil. For example, to caramellize sugar on a creme brulee if you don’t have gas burner, place them as high as possible in the oven, preferably using a grill element. Turkey legs stick out and easily get overdone – wrapping them with aluminum foil reduces heat radiation from the oven walls.
  • For a bain marie, always use a metal bowl as this gives you better temperature control. When making egg based sauces such as hollandaise or bernaise, use a thin metal bowl this allows rapid heating and cooling (if temperature gets to high, the metal bowl allows quick cooling which might save the sauce).
  • A pizza baking stone has a higher heat capacity than a metal plate/sheet – this ensures proper rising and gives a crispy crust.
  • Ever burnt your tongue on a pizza? Tomatoes (mostly water) retain heat far better than the crust (many air bubles, low heat capacity) and cheese topping (cools fast due to radiation from surface).
  • The vacuum in a thermos does not conduct heat by conduction or convection, only by radiation. The latter is minimized (in thermoses of glas) by a silver or aluminmum coating, creating a reflective mirror.
  • From the graph it doesn’t seem like cork is a particularly good insulator. This is because the heat conductance is plotted per weight unit. For a porous material such as cork, the effective heat conductance is much lower than for the same volume of other materials.
  • Lastly, just to illustrate how complex heat transfer and convection sometimes can be, take a look at the Mpemba effect: Believe it or not, under certain conditions, hot water freezes faster than cold water!
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    Check out my previous blogpost for an overview of the tips for practical molecular gastronomy. The collection of books (favorite, molecular gastronomy, aroma/taste, reference/technique, food chemistry) and links (webresources, people/chefs/blogs, institutions, articles, audio/video) at khymos.org might also be of interest.