The Color of Flavor

In all the talk about healthy eating, flavor rarely gets its due, but there’s no point in preparing a meal that no one wants to eat. Great taste should be the end goal every time you enter the kitchen. 

One way to make any food taste its best is to give it a good crust. Whether you’re making toast, grilling a steak, or roasting a head of cauliflower, brown is the color of flavor.

A good sear delivers more than just browning, it also produces aromatic compounds that add complexity and depth of flavor not found in raw ingredients. It’s called the Maillard reaction, named for Louis Camille Maillard, the French scientist who first described the process. It happens when both sugars and proteins are heated to the point that they begin to darken. But the best part of the Maillard reaction isn’t the color, it’s the flavors and aromas that the color gives to food.

The Maillard reaction gives foods that have been grilled or roasted a distinct flavor that differs from what you taste when you boil, poach, or steam the same ingredient. It’s the reason why slowly browning caramelized onions fill your home with their sweet scent more than when they’re quickly sautéed and why a grilled burger is better than one cooked on the flat top. 

One of the main challenges of browning is to get the surface of the food hot and dry enough to color without overcooking. Our trick is to pat the meat dry before it hits the pan—and you will notice we include that instruction in our weekly Sun Basket recipes. Removing any excess moisture helps the color develop more quickly. High temperatures help too, but only up to a point. Burning is a very real risk when trying to get a good sear on your food. While a little bit of char can be a good thing, blackened food can quickly turn bitter, so keep an eye on whatever you’re browning and don’t overdo it.