The old adage, “If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen” isn’t just a statement about pressure—no chef’s culinary arsenal is complete without a firm command over heat. Not only does a piping hot meal hit the spot, heat actually has the potential to unlock new cravable flavors and aromas via a process called the Maillard reaction. This magical, flavor-transforming technique relies on high heat to alter the structure of proteins and sugars in food—it’s responsible for that scrumptious dark brown crust on a steak, the deliciously crispy exterior of hashbrowns, even the mouthwatering caramelization of mushrooms. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a scientist to capitalize on this complex reaction in the kitchen. Handle the heat with these three simple steps.
High and Dry
There’s a reason that boiling a steak feels like sacrilege—water’s boiling point (100°C) is about 50°C too low for the Maillard reaction to take place. Even in a frying pan, natural moisture from the food can impede delicious browning, limiting the temperature interaction between the pan and the proteins and sugars. Drying your food before you cook it, therefore, is a critical step towards a yummy final product. For red meat, poultry, or fish, use a paper towel to pat dry any excess moisture before you cook. Salt is also a useful tool in enabling the Maillard reaction—season your meat a day before and the salt will absorb some of the moisture while dispersing flavor evenly throughout. Even veggies can benefit from a nice brown crust—instead of using water, clean mushrooms with a brush or towel to ensure they are dry enough for some Maillard magic.
Patience is a Tasty Virtue
The Maillard reaction often eludes the over-eager chef—placing meat in an under-heated pan will prevent important browning from taking place. Make sure your pan is hot before adding anything (including the oil!). Your meat should sizzle the second it touches the pan. Placing your food in the pan is no excuse to give up on patience—don’t disturb your mushrooms until they have begun to caramelize, don’t move your fish around until it’s had a chance to develop a nice layer of crispness.
Let it Breathe
An evenly spaced pan is heat’s best friend. As food draws heat from the pan, an overcrowded pan can rob the cooking surface of the heat necessary for the Maillard reaction. In addition, your food needs direct contact with the pan to undergo the tasty transformation. Leave room between your steaks, mushrooms, or fish fillets to allow the temperature of the pan to be distributed evenly.
Why Do We Crave It?
Our palates are specifically engineered to detect both nutrients and things that might endanger our bodies. The Maillard reaction gives our tongues (and our noses) the best of both worlds—high heat breaks down nutrients into forms our bodies can easily process while eliminating dangerous bacteria. Dry your meat, heat your pan, leave plenty of room, and taste the difference tonight!