Maillard Reaction Guide: Effect on Food Flavors

5 min
Seared steak with flavorful crust, rosemary and garlic garnish

The Maillard reaction is essential in cooking up flavorful steaks, chicken, bread, and other mouthwatering foods. It plays an important role in the kitchen for anyone who wants to cook up delicious foods.

What is the Maillard Reaction?

The Maillard reaction involves multiple chemical processes that converts sugar and amino acids into flavor compounds.

Although many beginners use the term ‘Maillard reaction’ synonymously with browning, they’re not far off. Browning occurs in both the Maillard reaction and caramelization – another chemical reaction responsible for adding flavor compounds to food.

Maillard Reaction Effects on Food

The effects of the Maillard reaction are apparent when you consider a well-browned steak to its boiled counterpart. While one has a flavorful, dark crust, the other is a bland, gray slab of meat.

Some visible examples of the Maillard reaction include:

  • A beautifully seared crust on steak beef, pork, poultry, or seafood
  • Crisped poultry or fish skin
  • Golden-brown color on baked goods
  • Coffee and chocolate

It’s important to remember that high heat isn’t just to cook food all the way through. It facilitates the Maillard reaction to create a tastier product.

Maillard Reaction Conditions

The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction that occurs more efficiently at the optimal environment.


The Maillard Reaction occurs faster on food surfaces that reach temperatures* of around 300°F (~150°C). That’s the reason we use high-heat cooking methods like searing, frying, grilling, broiling, or high-temperature baking.

*Although the Maillard reaction occurs within a temperature range, it’s easier for readers to remember 300°F or 150°C.

Surface Moisture

Surface moisture doesn’t directly impact the Maillard reaction. However, moisture can make it harder for your foods to reach the desired temperature to facilitate efficient Maillard browning.

Although your food can still be juicy on the inside, the surface needs to be dry enough for the reaction to take place. Otherwise, all your heat is lost towards evaporating water, which will boil your food instead of browning it.

Unfortunately, the boiling temperature of water (212°F or 100°C) don’t even come close to the temperatures for efficient Maillard browning. Unless you want a gray slab of meat instead of a golden-brown seared steak, ensure the surface is as dry as possible before you cook it on high heat.

How to Optimize the Maillard Reaction

Wiping Away Surface Moisture

Drying your food with a paper towel will help dry the surface enough for the Maillard reaction to occur. Although it’s not the most effective method, it’s better than tossing water-logged food into the oven or pan.

Rest in the Fridge Uncovered

Drying your food in the fridge produces a much better Maillard reaction than blotting with paper towels.

This method only requires you leave your food uncovered in the fridge, preferably overnight. You may even leave larger cuts – like a whole turkey – in the fridge for 1-2 days.

Although resting in the fridge is a great method, it’s only effective if you remember to do it ahead of time.

Dry Brining

Dry brining is the process of salting and resting your meat, which dissolves salt into the meat and pulls moisture inside. Although it won’t produce a better Maillard reaction than resting your meat uncovered in the fridge, it’ll have more Maillard browning and less moisture loss.

The salt from your dry brine will help your meat retain moisture on the inside, even as the outside cooks at high temperatures. This water retention will keep your foods juicy and lower the amount of moisture leaking out onto the pan, which can slow down the Maillard reaction.

If your food usually releases a lot of water during the cooking process, you can try both dry-brining and resting uncovered in the fridge to produce even better results!

Reverse Searing

Reverse searing requires two things: slow cooking in the oven and finishing off on the pan.

Setting the oven to a low temperature helps dry out foods without overcooking them. Following up with pan searing turns the dry exterior to a beautiful golden crust.

Dry Aging

Dry aging is a process that draws out moisture from the meat and allows time for bacteria to create funk, which concentrates and adds umami flavor. It also gives tenderizing enzymes time to do their work.

Since we’re on the topic of Maillard reactions, dry aging is great for reducing water content that will slow it down. After spending a few weeks (or months) at controlled humidity and temperature, no additional drying is needed to speed up the Maillard reaction.

Frozen Meat

Generally, freezing your meat is reserved for searing up thin steaks which would otherwise overcook by the time it browns.

But you can still properly cook a frozen steak without sacrificing quality. As the outside gets golden brown from searing at a hot pan, the inside will slowly come up to your desired temperature.

Maillard Reaction in Wet Cooking Methods

If you ever need to cook foods in liquids, this may affect the Maillard reaction and prevent proper browning. Different methods are necessary to ensure you create the optimal flavor profile even under these conditions.

Maillard Reaction with Basting

Although basting requires ladling hot liquid over foods, its effect on the Maillard reaction depends on what liquids you use.

Any liquids that contain water (marinade, sauces, stock, etc.) will introduce water to the surface. We already know that moisture will slow down the Maillard reaction.

However, there is little to no water in oils and fats, such as butter. Basting a steak or fish over stove top with any oil/fat will help the Maillard reaction rather than hurt it. Constant exposure to heat on both sides will also prevent any significant cooling that would otherwise slow down the Maillard reaction.

Just be sure to choose the right oils or fats and take care to lower the heat if using a low smoke point oil.

Maillard Reaction with Soups, Stews, Braises

If you attempt to make a braise, stew, or soup, the water will prevent the Maillard reaction from happening at all. Therefore, it’s necessary to brown your meat and vegetables in advance if you opt to do so.

Ensure your ingredients are dry and sear them on high heat for the Maillard reaction to take place. Alternatively, you could also roast your vegetables with some oil in the oven.

Remember to deglaze the crust that forms on your pan or roasting tray to capture all the flavor.

Maillard Reaction with Sous Vide

Sous vide is a process of submerging food sealed in a bag into a warm water bath. Since all the juices are trapped inside while cooking, it’s better to get the Maillard reaction going food after sous vide.

Once you cook your food to your desired internal temperature in the water bath, remove it from the bag and pat off the excess moisture. Then proceed to sear on the pan to get the Maillard reaction going.

Reversing this order may result in flavor loss, especially if you just toss out the liquids in the bag.


Although the Maillard reaction is a complex process involving many different chemical reactions, you can easily use it to your advantage.

The takeaway? Enhance your dishes by giving them enough heat and time for the Maillard reaction, while minimizing surface moisture that may slow it down.

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