Cooking a delicious piece of meat over a grill, barbecue or in a pan often requires knowing top-secret culinary tricks, and many hours in the kitchen. Speed, experience and timing are important – as is the chemical reaction that takes place. Time to dust off the cobwebs, and spark up the Bunsen burner again.
There’s a simple chemical reaction taking place with any cooking method requiring high temperatures – like, for example, a steak. It’s called the Maillard reaction, and involves the cooking of proteins and sugars.
Now, explaining the Maillard reaction in detail was the job of your chemistry teacher. Essentially the reaction consists of three phases in which the substances in the meat are transformed. All YOU need to know is the temperature, pH and the type of meat you’re cooking.
The Maillard reaction takes place when cooking almost all kinds of foods, although the simple sugars and amino acids produce distinctly different aromas. That is why a hot loaf of bread doesn’t smell like a Sunday roast, even though both depend on Maillard reactions for flavour.
Dryness and temperature are the two key controls for the rate of the Maillard reaction. The high temperatures speed up the Maillard reaction because heat both increases the rate of chemical reactions and accelerates the water evaporation.
Top Tip: make sure steak is dry before cooking.
The cut is irrelevant, but if it’s too lean it should be brushed with high-temperature oil like peanut oil before you cook. After the right temperature is reached, you can put the meat on the surface. And don’t touch it for at least a couple of minutes. Allow science to take over, there are things going on. Enzymes are breaking down proteins, and chemical reactions are slowly taking place. Just allow the Maillard’s reaction to run its course, forming the delicious flavours and aromas.
Maillard’s reaction is all about pH: and you want it as low as possible. The more acidic the meat is – the better. And this is where you get to experiment, as marinades or rubs can help obtain that perfect acidity.
The Maillard reaction is sometimes called the “browning reaction” – but that’s a misnomer. It’s actually a Flavour Reaction; the molecules it produces provide the unique, characteristic aromas of roasting, baking, and frying.
After you’ve grilled for a couple of minutes on each side, wrap the steak in foil and let it rest so the internal liquids get evenly distributed. Slice. Serve. Enjoy!