What is the Maillard reaction

Maillard reaction simply explained - you have to pay attention to this for perfect roasted aromas

Do you know the Maillard reaction? There are many theories about how to make a steak properly. But everyone agrees on these properties - juicy, crispy and with fine roasted aromas. This is how it has to be: the perfect steak. In the following article you will find out what the roasted aromas have to do with the Maillard reaction and how they arise. We reveal the secret of the crispy brown steak!

Table of Contents

The heat makes all the difference in the Maillard reaction

Whether steaks are grilled on gas or charcoal or placed in the pan does not matter for the roasted aromas. Extremely high but short heat is important so that roasting substances are produced as quickly as possible. The heat shouldn't get into the meat. Then the steaks are gently cooked and they are perfect: with a wonderful crispy crust and nice and juicy inside. What sounds so simple is actually very complex.

A little chemistry is a must

There is a chemical reaction behind the secret of the crispy brown steak. It runs completely unnoticed in the background. Not only when grilling, but also when roasting, caramelizing, roasting coffee and even brewing beer. Whenever the roast is browning, the smell of roasted onions and fried potatoes tickles our nose, there is a lot of chemistry involved. The French chemist and physicist Louis Camille Maillard (1878-1936) discovered the chemical reactions that are responsible for the roasted aromas.

The discoverer of the Maillard reaction

The Maillard reaction is named after its discoverer. In 1912 Maillard carried out experiments that made him internationally famous. He wanted to know what happens when amino acids - components of protein - and sugar are heated together. He found out that when it is heated, a large number of substances are produced that have a major influence on the aroma of the food. The entire sequence of the Maillard reactions - because it is a multi-stage reaction - is highly complex, and the basic principle behind it is quite simple.

In a nutshell: This is how roasted substances are created

When foods containing carbohydrates and proteins, such as meat, are heated, certain amino acids combine with the sugar molecules in the carbohydrate chains. It starts at around 150 degrees: one molecule of sugar and one molecule of amino acid combine, one molecule of water splits off. This is how melanoidins, nitrogen-containing organic compounds, are simply called roasted aromas or roasted substances. The longer the heating, the higher the temperature and the lower the water content in the food, the more melanoidins are formed. This is how the brown color and delicious roasted aromas are created in the steak. Ultimately, the temperature when grilling determines the flavoring substances formed and thus the taste.

Roasting, grilling and acrylamide

Why is meat sautéed? Quite simply: so that it is tastier. Due to the high temperatures and the Maillard reaction that takes place, roasts and the like acquire a special taste that would not develop at low temperatures. However, it is important not to overdo it. Acrylamide is formed if steaks are fried or grilled too dark. This is converted in the body to glycidamide, which is suspected of changing the genetic make-up and being carcinogenic.

The shorter and hotter, the better

When grilling steaks in particular, it is important that the Maillard reaction takes place as quickly as possible. After all, the meat shouldn't be left on the wire rack for too long at high heat. So heat your charcoal or gas grill properly before grilling. Sear the meat first, then finish cooking it with indirect heat. This gives it a crispy crust and stays juicy inside. You can also support the Maillard reaction so that the steak turns out perfectly.

Promote Maillard Response

Withdraw water

  • Pat your meat thoroughly before grilling. The more water there is in the food, the later the Maillard reaction sets in at the same temperatures.


  • You can salt steaks before or after frying them. If you salt it right before grilling, droplets of liquid will form on the surface that will prevent it from browning quickly on the grill. Either you give the salt some time to work or you salt it right at the table.


You can sprinkle pyramid salt or Murray river salt about 15 minutes before grilling. The flakes dissolve well and make a nice crust.

Add glucose

  • Sugar is needed for the Maillard reaction. Mix some glucose with a little water and brush the meat with it.

Use grill marinades

  • The more proteins in the food, the easier it is for the compounds required for the reaction to form. A trick: soak food in milk or egg before frying. Sugar also helps. That is why grill marinades usually contain sugar. But if you put your steak directly on the grill with the Mariande, it will have too much moisture (see point 1). So dab off the marinade a little before grilling.

Preheat the grill

  • Heat up the grill to the maximum and only briefly grill your meat on both sides. Do not place steaks, sausages, etc. too close together so that the steam that arises during frying can easily escape. Otherwise, too much water will form on the meat, which has to evaporate completely before the Maillard reaction begins.

Fat is good

  • Fat accelerates the Maillard effect, because fats and oils conduct heat very well. Don't cut off the fat on the meat before grilling, if you don't like fat, you can always cut it off afterwards. Brush lean meat with a little oil before grilling. Make sure you use heat-resistant oil when grilling!

Now you know why potatoes turn brown when seared and how the steak gets its wonderful crust. In addition, you can now inhibit or accelerate the Maillard reaction as you wish. Have fun trying it out and enjoy your meal!