Plating Food: The importance of the Maillard reaction

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I know, for those who don't know, the Maillard reaction sounds like a new movie with Tom Hanks in it. It's not. The Maillard reaction, in a nutshell, is the chemical reaction happening when you sear or grill a piece of meat; The brown crust that smells and tastes so good. I already wrote about it so I invite you to take a look at the post I wrote a few months ago.

I don't really know what the exact scientific explanation of it is, but I know that when we humans come close to a rib eye steak grilling, or a rotisserie chicken roasting or bacon being sauteed to a crisp, we just go crazy. We just do. And the thought of it right now just makes me want to stop writing and start cooking.

[image-1]The Maillard reaction looks good too. Look at the photo below and tell me if that is not a niiiiiiiice roasted turkey!

So my point here is that if you succeed in obtaining a beautiful crust on your protein element, you have a beautiful chance of getting a niiiiiiiice presentation. Nice crusts don't happen randomly. There are really 2 ways of making them happen. Both are called "searing". You can sear meat (usually smaller items like a steak or a chicken breast) in a saute' pan (or alternatively on a grill) and you can sear meat (larger pieces like a whole chicken or a veal roast) in an oven.

For the former, you need to heat up your pan to a moderately high heat, add just enough oil and/or butter (butter is better for taste and color but burns faster) to coat the pan. Add the piece of meat in the hot pan (make sure you hear the characteristic sound "pssshhhhh") and keep it still to give it a chance to brown. Work on the crust on the other side too.

For the latter, the crust is made by pre-heating an oven at about 425F, brushing the piece of meat with oil or butter, and putting it in the oven. We usually wait a third of the total cooking time has passed and the crust has formed, before turning down the oven to a less violent temperature. This is called, of course, roasting.


Searing a chicken breast, if you pay attention to the steps I described above, is easy. But making a nice crust (niiiiiiiice crust) is a little trickier. You'll need a little more practice and experience. But see the results:

This picture has been (accidentally. I promise) seared too long. Over-maillarded, if you will.


Now, in the following picture, a properly seared chicken breast, and it's easy to see that a nice Maillard reaction greatly improves the look of proteins. And actually, still taking a look at the picture below, it feels like not only the presentation of the chicken is improved, but also the overall presentation of the plate. Even the vegetables look fresher and more vibrant.


Most culinary students try to improve their plated food presentations by adding stuff. They try to add because they think that by adding something, anything — like an extravagant garnish for instance — their plate will always look better. They think it can only add to the presentation.

Unfortunately, the overall beauty of a food presentation most often relies on the specific beauty of each of its elements. No need to add anything. In other words, if you want to plate a chicken breast, some mashed potatoes and a few sauteed vegetables, you'd better first pay attention to how the chicken breast, the mashed potatoes and the sauteed vegetables look individually, before you even pay attention to the overall presentation.

We have already talked about the importance of blanching vegetables for color. Today, I wanted to focus on what may be the best way to enhance the look of meat: the Maillard reaction.

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