When it tastes better, that’s because it is better. Here’s why and how cooking improves the aroma and flavor of our food.
Much of cooking is about improving the mouthfeel of our food. We usually do this by seasoning it and cooking it—using a wide variety of cooking methods—which greatly improves its aroma, flavor, and texture.
Cooked food tastes better because of the browning and caramelization that take place when we heat foods to temperatures above the boiling point of water. The usage of salt, spices, and cooking oil, and the melding of flavors that takes place during cooking, also contribute.
Just think about the amount of transformation a thick-cut steak goes through before it lands on your plate: You salt it and season it with pepper, which brings out the savory and sweet flavors in the meat and adds pungency. You sizzle it in hot oil, which gives it a crispy, flavorsome crusts and cooks the protein all the way to the middle. You rest it before serving so that the juices settle.
Or how you make chili: You brown ground beef in the Dutch oven to make it more savory. You caramelize onions to intensify their sweetness, then drown the whole thing in beans with seasoned stock. You slow-cook it, adding hot chilis, until the aroma and flavors have melded together in a chili dish that makes the mouth water.
Or something as simple as baking bread in a hot oven: The heat draws the moisture from the dough, puffing it up on the inside and crisping it up on the outside. The wheat protein on the surface, called gluten, mingles with the sugars, its color turns golden-brown, its smell inviting, its flavor sophisticated.
Cooking, especially when it involves heat, is a series of irreversible changes that make our food smell and taste better than it did before. It combines the ingredients and alters the end result in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Why Browned Food Tastes Better
When we bake, broil, fry, and grill meats, fruits, vegetables, and goods made out of dough or batter, their exterior gets heated to temperatures well above the boiling point of water. The moisture on the surface evaporates and a crispy, golden-brown crust forms.
This crust’s formation takes the feel-good factor of food to new heights in more ways than one. Not only does it give it a crispier texture and better mouthfeel, but it also imparts it with new aromas and flavors that weren’t there before.
It can be said that cooking food makes it taste better because it gives it a better taste through browning.
Browning is the improvement of the aroma, the flavor, and the texture of protein-rich food when its surface gets heated to temperatures from 284°F (140°C) to 355°F (179°C). It’s the result of the so-called Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction—named after Louis Camille Maillard, the French scientist who discovered it in 1912—is a chain of chemical events that takes place when the proteins and carbohydrates in our food get charged up with so much energy from the heat that they start to shake and tremble.
This movement is so ceaseless and so random that, eventually, the amino acids that make up the proteins and the sugars that make up the carbohydrates collide and fuse. Their collision leads to the formation of hundreds of new aromas and flavors that get imparted on the surface of the food, giving it a rich, inviting smell and an intense, savory taste.
The Maillard reaction is why grilled steak, pan-fried salmon, and rotisserie chicken taste so good. It’s also why baked pizza, baked bread, toasted spices, and roasted coffee are so appealing.
How to Brown Foods
Browning is easiest to achieve in the dry heat of your oven. Whether you’re baking bread, roasting chicken, or broiling steak, all you have to do is preheat your oven to the desired temperature for 20-30 minutes, then slide your food in and cook it until it is done.
On the grill and stovetop, you brown food by searing it. The key is to crank up the heat to medium-high and preheat:
- Grease the grate on your grill and preheat it for 15-20 minutes (25-30 minutes if it’s windy and cold);
- On your stovetop, a ceramic or non-stick pan takes only 20-30 seconds to get up to heat; cast iron, carbon steel, and stainless steel pans need 4-5 minutes of preheating. All types of pans warrant 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil.
Place the food, usually thick-cut steak, pieces of chicken, or fish fillets, on the hot surface. Let it brown without interruption for 2-3 minutes on one side, then flip it over and repeat. Once a crispy, golden-brown crust has formed and the smell of searing meat has perfumed the air, turn the heat down to medium to continue cooking until done.
Searing, especially on thicker cuts of meat, is done briefly, just enough to form the crust. Then, the heat is turned down to a more moderate temperature that won’t burn the meat on the surface by the time it’s cooked in the middle.
You can also sear meats that you are about to braise, stew, or sous-vide. By doing so, you will impart them with that savory flavor before finishing them by boiling, simmering, or cooking them vacuumed and submerged in warm water.
Why Caramelized Food Tastes So Rich
When you heat sugar to a temperature that causes it to break down, caramelization happens.
Caramelized sugar goes through a significant transformation: its color darkens, its aroma intensifies, and its flavor deepens. You start with the clean, plain taste of sugar—and you end up a rich, thick, creamy consistency; a caramelly, nutty, milky aroma; a dark, intense, complex flavor.
The temperature at which caramelization takes place depends on the type of sugar at hand: Fructose, the natural sugar in fruits and vegetables, caramelizes at 220°F (105°C). Glucose caramelizes at 300°F (150°C), and sucrose at 340°F (170°C).
Although the classic way to caramelize sugar is by making caramel, the technique for which we will get to in a minute, you can also brown fruits and vegetables in your skillet. Slice or dice the produce, add them to a skillet, then add a dollop or two of cooking oil and set the heat to medium-high.
At first, the skillet will steam as the surface moisture evaporates. Once this is done, the fruits or vegetables in your skillet will start to sizzle. Cook them until they’ve turned golden brown, stirring now and then to keep them from sticking to the bottom and sides of the cooking vessel. This technique works particularly well with sweet alliums, such as white onions, red onions, and shallots.
How to Make Caramel
To make caramel, add 1½ cups of sugar and ¼ water to a pot, and whisk to incorporate. Turn up the heat to medium, not higher, and wait until the sugar starts to bubble. Swirl the pan now and then, but don’t stir the sugar at all; doing so will crystallize it and make it all tough once it’s done.
Once the sugar gets brown, turn the heat off, and grab a whisk. Add 1 cup of room-temperature cream and whisk vigorously for 1-2 minutes. Add and melt 5-6 cubes of unsalted butter.
Set the heat to low and let bubble for 2-3 minutes, swirling the pot but not using your whisk until you’ve turned the heat off again. Pour on top of dessert or transfer to a bowl for storage.
How to Cook Tastier Food
Always preheat your appliance or cooking vessel. Cooking works best when room-temperature food comes into sudden contact with the red-hot surface of the grate on your grill or the skillet on your stove. The same applies to your oven.
Cook with fat or oil. Unless you’re shallow-frying or deep-frying, in which case you will need a lot of oil, always add a dollop or two of oil to your pan when frying foods in it. The oil helps to distribute the heat of the pan to your food evenly, which leads to more even cooking and better browning.
Salt your cooking water. When you’re boiling beans, pasta, potatoes, or rice, always add a generous amount of salt to the water. The grains, dough, legumes, or vegetables will soak up some of the salty water as they cook; they will come out seasoned on the inside—and not tasting bland.
Season your meats and veg before cooking. If you season your meats and vegetables before cooking, the flavor of the salt will combine with that of the dish. If you don’t add salt them at all, they will be bland and unappealing. If you add the salt only after cooking, its flavor will be too strong and overpowering.
Seldom use high heat. High heat is only useful for simmering down liquids. Sear and caramelize foods over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to medium, medium-low, or low to cook them through. Gentle heat and patience are the two secret ingredients of every recipe.