Food Explainer: Why Does Food Taste Better When It’s Browned?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 25 2013 8:30 AM

Food Explainer: Why Does Food Taste Better When It’s Browned?

Thanks, Maillard reaction.

Photo by MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

A reader asks: Why is food that is browned tastier than the same food cooked to the same temperature via steaming, boiling, or microwaving?

Thank the Maillard reaction (which occurs most readily when the surface temperature of food is more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit) and caramelization (which kicks in at about 320 F).* These chemical reactions not only bring about a color change, they also produce hundreds of flavor compounds that create the rich, savory notes and appetizing aromas we associate with roasted, grilled, and seared dishes—notes and aromas that are noticeably absent from foods cooked by wet methods like steaming, boiling, and poaching.


For a food to reach such high surface temperatures, it must be fairly dry on the outside. When in direct contact with a hot skillet or surrounded by the scorching air of a 400 F oven, the water molecules on the surface of foods quickly vaporize, resulting in the familiar sizzling sound of searing or roasting foods. Once all the moisture has evaporated, the dehydrated exterior of the food becomes hot enough to trigger the Maillard reaction in just a few minutes.

By contrast, foods cooked by wet methods are only able to reach 212 F, the boiling point of water. (The Maillard reaction can take place at lower temperatures, but it takes much, much longer, such as when meat broth develops a dark color and rich flavors after hours of simmering.) So steak grilled to medium rare (135 F) will taste, and look, quite different from a steak poached to the same internal temperature, since the exterior of the former will have reached a much higher temperature.

So what’s the difference between the Maillard reaction and caramelization? The Maillard reaction takes place only when both protein and carbohydrates or sugars are present. Cooked at high heat, protein breaks down into its building blocks, amino acids, which then react with a group of sugars known as simple sugars. (Ribose, which is found in beef, pork, salmon, chicken, and many types of mushrooms, is one example of a simple sugar.) The reacting amino acids and sugars rearrange themselves to form ring-type structures that reflect light in such a way that the food takes on a brown hue. These transformations also produce a plethora of volatile flavor and aroma compounds, which combine with one another to produce even more nuanced tastes and smells. Ranging from malty, grassy, and chocolaty to oniony, meaty, and earthy, they depend on the exact composition of particular foods.

Unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is exclusively the breakdown of sugar molecules under high heat. Sugars such as glucose and sucrose unravel, and a wealth of sweet, bitter, and nutty flavor molecules are formed.

The ratio of the Maillard reaction to caramelization that transpires on a piece of food depends on its protein and carbohydrate content. Carrots, for example, have lots of carbohydrates, so roasting these root vegetables will result in considerably more caramelization than Maillard compounds. Seared steak, on the other hand, will have been browned and enriched mostly from the Maillard reaction.

Not all dry cooking methods produce browned and ultra-flavorful foods. Microwaves generate electromagnetic waves, causing water molecules within foods to vibrate, which in turn produces enough heat to cook muscle or vegetable tissue. Unlike the air in conventional ovens, the air in microwaves is not heated, so it can’t brown the surface of most foods. (Sliced bacon and very thin slices of vegetables and fruit are exceptions: Since they dehydrate easily while cooking, they are able to reach the high temperatures needed for the Maillard reaction and even caramelization.)

Food Explainer thanks Jeff Culbertson of Washington State University.

Have a question about something you’re eating or drinking? Send it to

Correction, Aug. 1, 2013: This post originally implied that the Maillard reaction occurs only when the surface temperature of a food is above 300 degrees Fahrenheit. While it occurs most readily above 300 degrees, it can also occur at lower temperatures. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Nadia Arumugam is a New York City-based food writer and contributer to Follow her on her blog Chew on This and on Twitter.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 20 2014 3:12 PM Terror Next Door Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband is dangerously, violently obsessed with the neighbors.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.