What's Maillard reaction and why everybody talks about it

You are preparing brioches, you place them into the oven and let them bake, till they turn golden-brown. Maybe you didn’t know, but you just witnessed the Maillard reaction.

If you are foodies and followers of food blogs (and if you are reading this blog, probably you are :)), you might have heard about Maillard reaction. Let’s admit it, Maillard reaction is as trendy as the last color of the season and should be in the vocabulary of each foodie ;) And given that I am part of the club scientist-that-enjoy-cooking, I didn’t want to fall behind. You see, if you do not have a post dedicated to Maillard reaction, you are missing the basic concepts ;)

But what’s Maillard reaction? And why everybody talks about it? And, overall, what are its implications in the kitchen?

What is Maillard reaction

In a few words, it is a very complex reaction occurring between reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acids of the proteins. The first step of the reaction brings to the formation of a Shiff base. After that, the molecules rearranged in the so-called Amadori product. Further steps bring to the formation of aromatic molecules and melanoidins that are responsible for the typical taste and color of roasted meat.


I designed the molecules in a non-conventional way, I hope the purists won’t hold it against me :D

Maillard reaction happens spontaneusly already at room temperature, although it takes much longer in this conditions (months or years!). Just to give you an idea, Maillard reaction is responsible for the degeneration of tissues in diabetic people. In this case, the sugars react with the collagen of the extracellular matrix provoking, unfortunately, structural and functional damages.

At high temperatures (140-160 C), Maillard reaction is accelerated and occurs in a few minutes.

The difference between Maillard reaction and caramelization

Sometimes the term “caramelize” is improperly used to refer to Maillard reaction. I do mea culpa, as I probably did the same in a few articles. Actually, even if they look similar at a first glance, caramelization and Maillard reaction are two different processes.

Caramelization happens at higher temperatures (180-190 C) and requires just sugar. Basically, it is a decomposing reaction of sugar. Maillard reaction, on the other hand, needs amino acids, free or linked into proteins, with whom sugars can react.

Great, but in the kitchen?

Have you ever asked yourself why a roast beef or grilled ribs are more tasty than boiled meat? Because those type of cookings allow the formation of the products of the Maillard reaction, which enrich the aromatic bouquet of your dish.

There are also treatments that enhance Maillard reaction as marinades. Marinating meat or fish before grilling helps the reaction because the sugars of the marinades react with amino acids of the meat.

The health side

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, Maillard reaction might bring to the formation of acrylamide, a molecule listed by IARC as “probably carcinogenic” to human beings. From here, the recommendation to consume grilled meat in moderation.

Did you know Maillard reaction? If you find this article useful, let me know in the comments about that…or better share it! :)


L. D’Ulivo, Analytica Chimica Acta, 664, 2010, 185-189

Donald S. Mottram et al.,  Acrylamide is formed in the Maillard reaction, Nature, 419, 2002, 448–449 

IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans 60, 1994, 389