Caramelize for Taste and Texture

Caramelized Onion on Fresh Grain Bread

Pale food doesn't have much flavor.  By that, I mean cooked food.  Raw meats and vegetables retain their original texture and flavor, which may or may not be subtle, but retain the structures of the living matter.  Once heat (or acid) is applied to meat or vegetable matter, the structures and textures of the food begin to change and break down.  If it is not cooked properly, this causes the meat or vegetable to lose its color.  A basic concept of cooking is known as caramelization, or the Maillard reaction. 

Much of the flavor of cooked food, especially food that is cooked for a long time, begins with caramelization.  This is why, in braising recipes, the instructions often call for browning the meat and or vegetables before adding the braising liquid.  This caramelization is what makes the skin of a chicken brown, makes French onion soup brown, makes beef soups and stews rich and brown.

Good cooking is a combination of managing the textures and the caramelization.  A lot of this is done through experience, but there are some tips to help the less-experienced cook succeed at producing the Maillard reaction, and amplifying the flavor of their food. Note: Thicker cuts of meat are often caramelized on top of the stove or grill before being placed in the oven to finish cooking the inside of the meat to the desired temperature.

One of the mistakes that many people make is crowding.  Ever end up with pale, rubbery bacon when frying in a skillet?  If bacon is spaced so that the liquids that cook off are able to escape, the bacon will be brown and crispy.  The water ends up essentially boiling the food, whereas food that has less water will actually caramelize.  Spacing the bacon out allows all that water to evaporate, giving the desired color and texture.  So in a skillet, this spacing is important.  The Maillard reaction is easy to achieve when roasting meat or vegetables by simply patting the food dry and applying a little of the healthy fats like olive oil to the outside.



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