No matter if you are a chef, baker, coffee roaster, malting beer, toasting chocolate, browning imparts an incomparable flavor to food. “Maillard reaction” (may-yar) named after French chemist Louis Camille Maillard who was focused on protein synthesis in 1910. The Maillard reaction results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually with heat. In the process, hundreds of different flavor components are formed. Some of these further break down forming additional flavor compounds. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavor compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 309 °F. Significant browning of food does not occur until all surface water is vaporized. If you are roasting at a lower temperature, these complex flavors do not develop as the Maillard reaction does not occur.
In many recipes, a roast may start at 400 F + initially which is held for 10~15 minutes then the heat reduced to the eventually roasting temperature to finish. Hence, a roast with a lot of connective tissue is cooked long enough to break down and become tender but the most flavors are still achieved.
Caramelization is an entirely different process from Maillard browning, although the two processes are sometimes similar in taste. Caramelisation is the browning of sugar or foods high in sugar, and can be thought of as a thermo chemical decomposition and does not involve amino acids. Caramelization is occurring in the sugar of your barbeque sauce on the grill. If excessively heated, carbon ultimately forms. Are we there yet? Heat and time may also transform the food from a collection of complex molecules to simple carbon reside and water vapour, which is not the objective, and even my dog, Macho who is a consummate epicurean (he eats everything) would turn up his nose at the ash residue. Therefore, if you are alone minding the store, you cannot go out back for a constitutional and newspaper read. If the thin crust pizza is perfect at 5 minutes, what is it a 6 ½ minutes?
Browning the meat and the vegetables can be a good way to enhance hearty stews, stock and soup. Add meat and cut vegetables to a shallow toasting pan and roast of high, turning pieces with thongs until meat is well browned. Maillard browning occurs in the meat and caramelization in the carrots.
In Asian cuisine, the use of very high heat under the wok can achieve Maillard browning not only in meat but also to the rice or wheat noodles if they are added without a liquid and tossed. This imparts a meaty character to the noodles. In my cookbook, Beef Chow Fun is cooked in this “dry style” to get this effect.