The Science of Roasting Turkey: Nathan Myhrvold Explains the Maillard Reaction

published Nov 25, 2013
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Of course you know that the iconic image of Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey, roasted brown and crisp-skinned, sitting proudly on a platter. But what you might not know is the science behind what goes on in the oven, the process that transforms a pale, flabby bird into something fragrant and irresistible. We asked Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Modernist Cuisine to explain that process, known as the Maillard reaction, and share a few science-based tips for maximizing the reaction when roasting a turkey.

What is the Maillard reaction?

The Maillard reaction, sometimes called the “browning reaction,” creates brown pigments in cooked meat in a very specific way: it rearranges amino acids and certain simple sugars, which then arrange themselves in rings and collections of rings that reflect light in such a way that gives the meat a brown color. The important thing about the Maillard reaction isn’t the color, however, it’s the flavors and aromas. Indeed, it should be called “the flavor reaction,” not the “browning reaction.”

When you roast a turkey, what changes in flavor and aroma does the Maillard reaction produce?

The molecules produced by the Maillard reaction provide the potent aromas responsible for the characteristic smells of roasting, baking, and frying. What begins as a simple reaction between amino acids and sugars quickly becomes very complicated: the molecules produced keep reacting in ever more complex ways that generate literally hundreds of various molecules. Most of these new molecules are produced in incredibly minute quantities, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. The Maillard reaction, or its absence, distinguishes the flavors of boiled, poached, or steamed foods from the flavors of foods that are grilled, roasted, or otherwise cooked at temperatures high enough to dehydrate the surface rapidly (i.e., at temperatures above the boiling point of water).

These two factors, dryness and temperature, are the key controls for the rate of the Maillard reaction.

Do you have any tips for maximizing the Maillard reaction while roasting a turkey? Any practices to avoid?

One of the challenges to getting the Maillard reaction going is making the surface hot and dry enough without overcooking the flesh beneath — or at least overcooking it as little as possible. One strategy that works well is to remove as much water from the surface of the meat as possible before cooking it. You can try blotting or drying the meat at low temperatures. Fast heating, using deep fryers, superhot griddles and grills, and even blowtorches, is also a helpful tactic. We’ve developed even more elaborate tactics, such as using dry ice or liquid nitrogen.

One of the subtler techniques for fostering the Maillard reaction is raising the food’s pH to make it more alkaline. Chinese cooks often marinate meat or seafood in mixtures containing egg white or baking soda for this very reason. An alkaline marinade raises the pH and makes the surface brown and become flavorful more quickly in the wok. Another simple fix is to add sugar — especially glucose, fructose, maltose, or more exotic meat sugars like ribose — to a brine in order to trigger the reaction. Indeed, the deep mahogany color of a Peking Duck owes a lot to being dipped in a malt sugar solution just before being roasted.

(Image credit: Modernist Cuisine)

More from Nathan Myhrvold & Modernist Cuisine:

→ Read the books: The Photography of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home
→ Check out the website
→ Follow them on Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest