Why do baked goods turn golden brown?

‘Tis the season…for baking! If you’re like me, you’re flitting around grocery stores gathering ingredients for your favorite holiday treats like Christmas breads, biscuits, cookies, pretzels, and pies. (Who’s drooling with giddy anticipation?) Ever notice that most recipes for baked goods direct you to “bake until golden brown?” Just why do those baked beauties brown, anyway?

The answer happens to be one of my favorite food science secrets…drum roll please…behind every golden brown baked temptation is the Maillard reaction. (The Maillard reaction is actually a series of reactions, but I’ll spare you the chemistry drawings this time.) Catalyzed by oven heat, reducing sugars react with amino acids in the (bread/cookie/pretzel/biscuit) dough yielding a delectable aroma and a golden brown exterior that just begs to be tasted.

The type of sugar in the recipe can have a great effect on results from the Maillard reaction. Be careful when substituting sugar alcohols (xylitol, sorbitol, erythritol, etc) for sugar in your baking recipes.  Some sweeteners don’t participate in the Maillard reaction, you may need to make a few adjustments to your recipe. If you’re must swap in an artificial sweetener, consider some of the 1:1 Splenda products on shelf.

Other factors affecting the Maillard reaction include: temperature, time, water activity, pH, presence of oxygen, and types of amino acid. Food manufacturers are able to effectively manage these factors so the products you find on shelf consistently display the quality (and color) you expect.

A Food Science tid-bite: The Maillard reaction is not limited to baked goods. In fact, roasted meat, baked egg whites (meringues), egg washes (on pie crusts, pastries, etc), coffee, seared steak, and more demonstrate effects of the Maillard reaction. Unlike browning apples in the PPO post , Maillard is an example of a non-enzymatic browning reaction. The Maillard reaction is often confused with caramelization, but that’s for another post.

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