Few things are as disappointing for an amateur chef as digging into a carefully prepared dish, tasting every individual ingredient... and nothing else. Of course, you don’t add thyme, broccoli, black truffle, or whatever if you don’t want to taste them, but the entire point of laboring over a meal is to create something that's more than the sum of parts. But in order for any dish to transform from a grocery list into a finished, melded creation, some things have to happen in the pan.
What happens – the actual cooking part – is a delicious science. Proteins, sugars, salts, acids and other things that put you to sleep in eleventh grade all react to heat to create specific tastes that can transform ingredients into something completely new . What are those sumptuous scientific reactions? Well, you can either watch “Chef’s Table” in slow motion (doesn’t everyone do that?) or you can keep reading. Or sure, both. We’re not here to judge.
Memorize this term: the Maillard reaction. Boom – now you're ready to impress anyone who questions your prowess in the kitchen.
This chemical phenomenon, discovered by and subsequently named after a French chemist in 1912, is one of the best things to ever happen to food. Maillard was trying to replicate protein synthesis when he discovered the science behind browned food – like when bread turns into toast, or when raw potatoes turn into golden brown fries, or when raw steak turns into a well-chared piece of deliciousness.
When you expose your food to temperatures high enough to darken their color – whether that's in a frying pan, an oven, a toaster, a campfire, or whatever – you’re making the Maillard reaction happen. Basically the intense heat causes a rearrangement of amino acids and simple sugars into increasingly complex patterns. Those patterns tend to cause food to brown, sure, but more importantly, they also cause really delicious aromas and flavors to erupt where they didn’t exist before. You know when you bite into a really well-charred steak or burger and get wave upon wave of savory flavor? That’s the Maillard reaction. It usually occurs when the surface of whatever you're cooking hits 300° F – that's why poached chicken (which never gets too hot) looks and tastes like garbage, but a well roasted, deeply browned one is like magic.
As it relates to cooking meat, most people think this process locks in moisture. It doesn’t. Getting the pan or grill really hot and then tossing a cut of meat on there and enjoying the violent sizzle is a good practice, but creating that hard sear on the outside doesn't actually keep liquid locked inside your steak – the chemical structure of the meat doesn't work that way. The myth was born around 1850, and careful tests have proved that searing actually makes food lose more moisture than it "locks in," but giving your food a hard sear is still totally worth it to achieve all the fantastic flavors that the Maillard reaction creates.
Caramelization is similar to the Maillard reaction – both describe a change that happens when molecules break apart under heat to create a menagerie of flavors. The difference is that while the Maillard reaction involves both protein and sugar, caramelization involves sugar only. This is why you can make caramel out of just sugar, water and heat. It’s a much richer flavor than pure white sugar, thanks to those sugar molecules breaking down and rearranging.
Assuming you’re not a modern Willy Wonka, luring children to your factory and systematically offing them until you find goodness in the world, you probably want to make more than just caramel. Well, good news: caramelization works with anything containing sugar – not just raw crystalized sugar itself. Thing like onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts all caramelize to develop a rich sweetness that wouldn’t otherwise emerge.
Patience is key when caramelizing. Take caramelized onions for example, which can lend a sweet counterpoint to any savory dish. Start by just covering the bottom of a skillet with a combination of oil and butter (butter for flavor, and oil to prevent burning). Then put a couple of sliced onions in there under medium low heat and casually keep an eye on them for about 45 minutes. Stir regularly and you'll see the onions start to turn into a rich brown color as they release intensely sweet aromatics that you can smell from a mile away.
Reduction is, by definition, a form of distillation. In a given sauce pan, you’ll often have several different components: solid ingredients like braised beef or vegetables swimming in liquids like stock, cream, wine, or some kind of sauce. The point of reducing is thickening the liquid component and evaporating water, leaving a silky, rich texture and a more concentrated flavor.
To reduce a sauce, you need to simmer – not boil. The difference is pretty important. You should see small bubbles in the bottom of the pan, some rising, and plenty steam wisping from the surface. A boil, on the other hand, is more violent. Large bubbles crash in rapid succession to break the surface of the liquid. The difference, other than apparent temperature, lies in the action inside of the pot. In a simmer, flavors are melding into each other gradually and gently. Textures are preserved. Things are getting generally more delicious and more or less maintaining form. With boiling, ingredients smash into each other and cook much more rapidly, so textures break down quickly and flavors don’t get as friendly.
Just like with caramelizing, patience is key. Reducing a sauce can take 15–30 minutes or longer, depending on the size of the batch and your vessel (a wider sauce pan with more surface area will speed the process along more quickly).
Once you have these basics in hand, you’ll be able to go off-road, making your own recipes with the knowledge that doing this will develop a peppery crust, or doing that will imbue a rich, browned sweetness. So suit up, chef – you’re on your way.