Saint Leo University Browning Reactions Activity

Textbook: The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking By Joseph J. Provost

Guided Inquiry Activity #17
Browning reactions
Caramelization is what happens when any sugar is heated to the point that the
molecules undergo chemical reactions with oxygen in the air and with each other – the
molecules either break apart into smaller molecules, or combine with one another to
make larger molecules. The result is a very complex, brown-colored mixture that we call
caramel. Any sugar can caramelize, and the temperature necessary for caramelization is
dependent on the chemical structure of the starting sugar. Sucrose (i.e. table sugar) is
the most common sugar that is used to make caramel.
Figure 17.1. Caramelization of sucrose produces large brown molecules (caramelan, caramelen, and
caramelin) and small, volatile aroma molecules such as furan, maltol, ethyl acetate and diacetyl.
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
The large brown molecules (caramelin, caramelen and caramelan) are what give
caramel its color, its viscosity and its stickiness. The aroma molecules give caramel its
flavor. The caramelization reactions require intense heat (320˚F/160˚C), and too much
heat for too long will produce very dark, sticky and bitter tasting caramel, rather than a
light brown, sweet and complex tasting syrupy solid.
1. When making caramel, cookbooks will advise that the darker the caramel (i.e. the
more brown the color) the less sweet the caramel will be. Dark caramel is more
complex and bitter. How does the chemistry of caramelization explain why dark
caramel has less sugar in it?
2. A double boiler uses the heat of steam (212˚F/100˚C) to cook whatever is in the
upper bowl. If you were to place a sugar syrup in the upper bowl of a double boiler,
it will eventually crystallize, but never caramelize. Why?
3. In crème brûlée (literally, “burned cream”), a baked custard of egg
yolks and cream (usually flavored with vanilla) is topped with a
hard, thin layer of caramel. The caramel is made by spreading sugar
on the surface of the chilled custard and then heating it with a
propane torch. Why is the use of the torch (or a very hot broiler)
necessary to form the caramel?
Chris EngelsmaCC
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
Model 2. The browning reactions of sugar are related to another set of reactions called
the Maillard reactions – responsible for the browning of many foods including meat, the
brown color on a loaf of bread, coffee beans and “caramelized” onions.
Figure 17.2. The first step of the Maillard reaction is always the reaction of the open
chain form of a sugar (e.g. glucose) with the amino group of an amino acid (e.g. lysine)
with the loss of a water molecule. This dehydration product rearranges to the Amadori
Maillard reactions take place between sugars like glucose and amino acids that are free
or part of proteins. In meat, the sugar glucose comes primarily from the breakdown of
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
“animal starch” also known as glycogen. While in bread or browned potatoes, the sugar
glucose come from the breakdown of starch (amylose and amylopectin) into free
glucose monomers. Both glucose and fructose have an anomeric carbon that can ring
open to form a carbonyl (pronounced CAR-BOH-NEEHL).
Although the process of browning meat or onions etc is often referred to as
“caramelizing” – the reactions to make the brown color are fundamentally different
from the caramel forming reactions we saw above. The nitrogen and sulfur atoms from
the amino acids make different aroma molecules that give distinct flavors.
Figure 17.3.The Maillard reactions are responsible for the browning and complex flavors of
seared meat and toasted bread .
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
The Maillard reactions also require intense heat (250˚F/120˚C) – but not quite as hot as
the caramel forming reactions of pure sugar. Still the Maillard reactions require heat
that is above the boiling point of water, so the browning of foods like meat, bread and
vegetables requires dry heat – typically in the form of direct contact with an oiled skillet
(often called “searing”) or baking/broiling in a hot oven.
4. Several amino acid residues are shown below as part of a protein. Which of these is
capable of undergoing a Maillard reaction with the open form of glucose? Using the
Draw tool or by inserting a shape, circle the group of atoms that will under the
Maillard reaction.
5. When meat is cooked, protein breaks down, as shown below. The degraded protein
is able to undergo a Maillard reaction with glucose released from the breakdown of
muscle glycogen. Using the structures below, explain how the proteins is “breaking
down” and why this facilitates a Maillard reaction with the glucose.
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
6. Ribose is also able to make an open chain form. Using either the Draw tool or by
inserting shapes, place a star next to the anomeric carbon of ribose, and circle the
carbonyl group of atoms in the open form.
7. When baking bread, the toasty brown layer (i.e. the crust) will only form on the very
outside of the bread. Why?
8. If you want to enhance the brown crust of your baked bread, you can brush the
surface with milk or butter, even egg white. All of these washes will brown on the
surface of the bread. What is it about these different washes that creates the
9. Before slow cooking a meat (for example, in a crockpot/slow-cooker) you will often
find instructions to sear the meat on high heat in an oiled skillet for a few minutes
before transferring it to the crockpot. The searing is brief – not long enough to cook
the meat thoroughly. Despite myth/legend, the searing will not “seal in the juices”.
What is the searing for?
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Guided Inquiry Activity #17
Putting it all together
10. Butter is made of fat, protein and milk sugar. It is possible to “brown” butter as a
flavorful variation in traditional baked goods. It is often served with fish, but can also
make a delicious topping for vegetables. What is causing the butter to “brown”?
11. How are the aroma molecules from the Maillard reactions chemically different from
the aroma molecules produced during the caramelization of sugar? What is
responsible for this difference?
Copyright © 2016 Wiley, Inc.
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