The differences between caramelization and the Maillard reaction


The explosion of cooking TV shows has given us a whole new vocabulary to tap into. Who has ever dared to utter difficult words like “caramelization of sugars” or “Maillard reaction“About ten years ago? Nobody, we bet. Today, however, things seem obvious: an ordinary guy after two hours in front of a barbecue immediately feels Giorgio Locatelli and starts to sink strange phrases like those above. Next time this happens, especially if this is you, don’t look bad: caramelization and the Maillard reaction are different things.

In a nutshell, we can say that the main difference Lies in the iterations between elements: in caramelization there is formation of aromatic compounds caramel-like obtained from the splitting of water molecules in sugar a very high temperatures; in the Maillard reaction, a series of phenomena occur which lead toiteration between sugars and proteins during cooking, giving rise to brown-colored chemical compounds, which give color to foods such as grilled steak or bread crust. Let us see all the differences between the two chemical reactions.

Common points between the caramelization of sugars and the Maillard reaction

Let’s say it right away: bring the two reactions together it’s not a very big mistake because, in reality, the two processes have more than a few similarities. First, let’s talk about chemical reactions, which is not at all obvious because food transformations often go through other processes. The most common sciences that we apply in the kitchen are the biology and the thermodynamics: the first with all the leavened products, the second with boiling water. Another common point is the type of chemical reaction And the result obtained: both occur through heat, both lead to change in food color, change in texture and aroma. These are often two consecutive reactions because caramelization occurs at higher temperatures than the Maillard reaction.

The differences between sugar caramelization and the Maillard reaction

Let’s first try to understand who is Maillard, so we remove the thought. French scientist who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries, Louis Camille Maillard it was the chemist who first identified this reaction. The thing is interesting: man learned to use fire millions of years ago, but it was only in the last century that we demonstrated a chemical reaction that had previously only been theorized. The scientist describes this reaction in 1912 while trying to play protein synthesis: in practice it turns out the chemical reaction between an amino acid it’s a sugar reductionin food, after cooking. Wanting to reduce the discussion to the bone, we can also say that in the end, Maillard’s reaction is it: a chemical reduction in food as a result of the use of heat. Unfortunately, however, it’s not just that, on the contrary, the discourse is much more complicated than that.


Caramelization it is nothing more than a process of browna technical term that indicates the formation of dark colored substances. We usually see it with apples: if we peel an apple and don’t eat it right away, we will see the fruit turn black. This is due to the browning of apple sugars. In this case, it is due to the rot fructose, in caramelization it’s rather caused by heat: sugars caramelize at temperatures above 100°Cwill “create” a new color and above all new flavors.

The process is not immediate and goes through a few steps until it comes to a compound known as hydroxymethylfurfuralthe one who gives the classic caramel flavor, hence the name of the reaction. This part is very important because, starting from a sweet base, each stage has unique sensory characteristics and it is precisely for this reason that the great pastry chefs use different types of caramel depending on what they have to cook.

With this “explanation”, we can be sure of one thing: when you feel the “proteins caramelizing”, you feel an absurd sentence. I am caramelizing sugars, not proteins. In this case, the Maillard reactiona much more complex phase because involves several chemical compounds, i.e. sugar and protein.


If in the first reaction the main factor is the temperature, the sugars “melting” at different temperatures, with the Maillard other parameters are also involved, such as the degree of acidity, which come into play different steps. The Maillard reaction is divided into three main phases:

  • The first is a the reaction is invisible to the naked eye: there is the iteration between a sugar and a group of amino acids which will create a new organic compound which in turn leads to the formation of a third compound;
  • the second phase is the most complex, because many reactions take place influenced, yes, by the Temperature. We have the first light coloring and the aroma of the product we cook is released;
  • finally we have the last step which condenses organic products born in “phase 2” and leads to the formation of melanoidinthe organic substance that determines the formation of a color ranging from brown to black.

Suppose that’s it an extreme synthesis of the process because it is very difficult even for the most experienced chemists. In practice, we can say that everything comes from reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars which trigger a mixture of molecules responsible for a very wide range of flavors and aromas.

What interests us to emphasize is that the Maillard reaction is responsible for most of the browning which, empirically, we recognize as “cooked“. Even though today we all associate it with meat but, in reality, the most immediate and simple Maillard reaction that we can recognize. arrived on the bread: the crust which ranges from gold to brown, so fragrant and tasty, is the result of chemical reactions between sugars, carbohydrates and proteins has occurred in the oven during cooking.

What are the factors affecting the Maillard reaction

The complexity of this chemical reaction places it at the center of numerous food industry studies because it is essential to know how to control it during the production and storage of large quantities of food: the more we know about the Maillard reaction, the more the cQuality control of food products. Research has identified a frequency, extension and evolution of chemical reactions related to temperatures, reaction rates, activity and pH of water or acidity of food:

  • The most immediate thing that comes to mind is to focus on high temperatures, on the other hand we associate this process with barbecue, but this is not always true. A high heat could does not guarantee a correct Maillard reaction because the reaction time and rate are closely related;
  • this correlation is closely affected by thethe water that it blocks or slows down the reaction because it lowers the temperature and reduces the reaction rate, consequently slows down the Maillard reaction itself. If there is watery food the reactants will move very quickly through the fluid (and the reverse is also true). With lower water activity values, the reagents are more concentrated in a few points, they will be able to disperse less and therefore we will have a more efficient Maillard reaction. Many people, to overcome this problem, are convinced that they have to place the steak on a plate or a grill as hot as possibletherefore of “seal” the meat and so I fluids. It is one of the biggest false myths related to cooking meat. Studies have also been carried out on this legend: it has been shown that a piece of meat cooked at a low temperature, then boiled in its own fluids, everything escaping, and a grilled piece “sealing” the meat, have exactly the same weight;
  • the Temperature it has however a certain importance because the reaction of Maillard it can start even at 20-25°C in the presence of oxygen, therefore at room temperature; reaction speed increases around 30°C and from thirty years goes in proportion: every 10°C morethe Maillard reaction is three times faster. It stabilizes between 80°C and 140°C, the optimum temperature to obtain a Maillard’s perfect reactionafter which the caramelization process begins, followed by non-enzymatic browning which affects the browning and color variation of food during cooking.

It can therefore be concluded that the differences between the Maillard reaction and the caramelization of sugars are hard to find but there is and these affect the taste and smell of what we eat. Caramelization occurs at very high sugar temperatures, the Maillard reaction is more like a ballet between proteins and sugars during cooking.

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