Really? The Brown Stuff Has a Name?
I will always remember my amazement the first time I read that the brown stuff that’s left in the bottom of the pan is called fond. Someone gave that stuff a name!? Even more mind blowing was the revelation that you should eat it, rather than attacking it with an SOS pad. I read on and learned that fond is created by the Maillard reaction.
Understanding this little bit of information, gave me a new ingredient to play with–one as fundamental as sugar, salt and flour.
Fond is really just the same brownness that has escaped from the food and browned on the bottom of the pan instead of its surface. I’m pretty sure cavemen really discovered the Maillard reaction, but it was a French (of course) chemist named Louis-Camille Maillard who first described what happens to create it.
So what exactly is the Maillard reaction and why is it such a happy thing? When you expose meat or produce or to heat, juices are forced to its surface, carrying with them proteins and carbohydrates. The water evaporates, leaving a concentration of the proteins and carbohydrates that, when heated further, then break down and recombine on a molecular level in new and yummier ways. They basically recombine to become lots and lots of new flavor compounds. The same reaction happens with baked goods, only the evaporation is just from the surface of the dough–obviously, we don’t have that whole juice thing happening there.
You know that feeling you get when you flip a pancake to discover that perfect not-too-pale-not –too-dark brownish-goldenness? Or manage to get that perfectly gorgeous brownness on grilled meat? The exhilaration you feel comes from a mix of anticipation of the perfect flavor of what you’re about to eat and the sense of accomplishment you’re feeling at having executed a perfect Maillard reaction.
Caramelization is the Maillard reaction’s sister technique. It’s the same process but it happens with food that only has carbohydrates, not proteins- think toasted marshmallows or the top of a crème brulee. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the term “caramelize” misapplied in print. Enjoy the smug feeling you’ll get next time you read a recipe and it tells you to “cook the meat until it caramelizes.” Bah! What hack wrote that recipe?
So what is the trick to getting a perfect Maillard reaction? Well if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to use an illustration of caramelization to explain the Maillard reaction. Think about what it takes to roast the perfect marshmallow. Individual taste preferences aside, I’m talking about the kind of perfectly golden brown squishy-in-the-middle kind. If you’re feeling incredibly patient and hold it too far from the bonfire, you just get a warm squishy marshmallow without the brownness. You could get that with a microwave. If you hold it too close to the fire it will become a short-lived tiki torch. To get the perfect ‘mallow you need to find a spot of glowing coals (which generate more even, predictable heat than flames) and hold it patiently just the right distance to brown it before it melts and completely and slides off the stick. Fundamentally, its about cooking something through at the same time you accomplish perfect brownness.
Executing a great Maillard reaction is about:
1) A steady heat source
2) A heat source that it hot enough to brown the food before the inside is done
3) A heat source that is cool enough not to burn the outside before the inside is done
Why does this matter to you – a mere mortal home cook? You’re going to hear a lot about the Maillard reaction as we make sauces, talk about cooking temperatures, and build flavor. I’m also hoping that its going to keep folks from emailing me and asking why you have to brown the meat before you stew it (Wouldn’t it save so much time to just put the meat in and turn the slow cooker on? Ack!).
Knowing someone’s name is the beginning of your relationship. Knowing that the brownness of which I write is called the Maillard reaction is going to initiate your relationship with it. That brownness will no longer be an accidental by-product of following a recipe properly, but rather an accomplishment. When you have a name for something, you can actually begin to relate to it. You can now take pleasure in your Maillard reactions. Who knew, eh?
The other day I made pan-seared scallops. I wasn’t going to use the fond for sauce but it pained me to lose all of that yumminess. So when no one was looking I actually scraped it off the bottom of the pan with my spatula and ate it. Sweet, salty, savory, umami goodness. When you understand how good the brown stuff is, you’ll be inspired to harness it in all sorts of different ways.
I spent some time thinking about what kinds of recipes might best demonstrate the importance of this concept. I’ve come up with the following three that graphically illustrate the Maillard reaction’s ability to switch your tastebuds on.
No seriously. Think about it. Why do we make toast? A toaster is just a little Maillard reaction machine. That’s all a toaster does. Cool, right?
The recipe as originally written did not include browning the chicken. Try making it by browning some of the chicken and not browning some and trying it side-by-side. The browned version still boosts the overall dish by adding fond to the veggies, but this is a great way to vividly illustrate the difference between the meats. Your kids will actually probably enjoy this little “experiment.”
Everyone has had steamed green beans. See what a a difference the Maillard reaction makes for them. Think about making them both ways (They’re both so easy.) and serving them side by side. You can finish the steamed ones with a bit of the oil, just to make it fair.