One of the main reasons restaurant food tastes so much better in America than home cooking,” renowned chef Mario Batali often said on his Food Network show, “Molto Mario,” “is that chefs aren’t afraid to really brown things.” It’s a mantra he repeated on any show in which he browned anything. Batali knows what he’s talking about. Sometimes even beginning professional cooks or bakers fail to appreciate browning and caramelization. Once on the reality TV show “Top Chef,” the contestants had to make a dish based on a color. The contestant who was given brown was disappointed. “Duh,” I thought. “That would’ve been my first choice.”
Several years ago I stopped at the baked-goods stand at the farmers market. The breads were handcrafted, but looked as if they should have stayed in the oven longer; their crusts barely darker than their interiors. I decided to overlook that, however, when I spied muffuletta sandwiches. A good muffuletta – a New Orleans creation of various Italian cheeses and cold cuts and piquant olive salad stuffed between crusty round bread loaves – is a thing of beauty. The filling was great: excellent meats and cheeses and exceptional olive salad. But the bread was so pallid, limp and insipid that after just a couple bites I discarded the top – and soon I abandoned the bottom as well, eating only the filling. Why waste the calories?
I especially enjoyed demonstrating browning and caramelization when I was teaching cooking classes – not least because of the opportunity for some theatrics. “OK, everybody gather ’round,” I’d say, spearing the meat sizzling in a skillet, “Is this brown enough? No! It’s not nearly brown enough!”
He’s right. I’ve had excellent gumbos made with mahogany roux, but none could match the haunting, almost mysterious flavor of black-roux gumbo. Making black roux without burning it always seems a bit like playing chicken, but the pressure really intensified when a bunch of students hovered around me at the stove. “Almost there, almost there,” I’d mutter under my breath, feeling like Luke Skywalker zeroing in on his Death Star target. Should I play it safe and throw in the diced vegetables (which stops the browning) when it was still mahogany? “No,” I thought, “I’ll risk it.” Just as it turned the color of the darkest dark chocolate, I made my move. Whew! Pulled it off again!
So why do well-browned and caramelized foods taste so good, and why do so many cooks not take advantage of them? I’m not certain about the answer to the second question, but I suspect that it involves a combination of lack of experience or knowledge; that “chicken” factor – safer underdone than overdone, even if the result is not as tasty. The only other factor I can think of is the outdated (at least it should be outdated) notion that pale food is somehow more refined and elegant than food that’s earthy brown.
The answer to the first question is easy, though chemically complex. According to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a reference book regarded as indispensable by food professionals and serious amateurs, “Caramelization is the name given to the chemical reactions that occur when any sugar [there are many different kinds of sugars, among them sucrose, glucose, lactose and fructose] is heated to the point that its molecules begin to break apart. This destruction triggers a remarkable cascade of chemical creation. From a single kind of molecule in the form of a colorless, odorless, simply sweet crystal, the cook generates hundreds of new and different [flavor and color] compounds.”
Though the terms “browned” and “caramelized” are often used to describe the colors and flavors of bread crusts, chocolate, coffee beans, dark beers and roasted meats, the proper scientific term is the Maillard reaction (named after the French scientist who first analyzed and described it in 1910). All these foods have some sugars, but they’re not a primary ingredient. As with the simpler caramelization process, heat breaks down and regroups the food’s molecular structure. Says McGee, “Again, a brown coloration and full intense flavor result. [But] Maillard flavors are more complex and meaty than caramelized flavors, because the involvement of the amino acids to the mix . . . produces new families of molecules and new aromatic dimensions. Maillard products have a range of qualities, from leafy and floral to earthy and meaty.”
So there you have it. The scientific explanations are interesting, but all any cook or diner needs to remember is that brown really is beautiful – and tastier.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Nothing is more dramatically transformed by browning than onions. Sharply pungent raw onions become richly mellow, savory and sweet. This caramelized-onion marmalade has many uses: as a sandwich spread, or on a grilled cheese sandwich. I often use it as a base for salad dressing (mix 1 tablespoon of olive oil with every quarter-cup of marmalade). It can be tossed with pasta, crumbled bacon, and chèvre; or a topping for bruschetta or pizza (try it with fontina, mushrooms, and sausage or with Gorgonzola and pine nuts.) It can be made in larger quantities, freezes beautifully, and can be kept in the refrigerator for weeks.
- One very large onion, red, white or yellow, not supersweet (1-1 1/2 pound)
- 1 T. olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves (do not use ground)
- 2 T. medium dry sherry, such as Amontillado, or Dry Sack, or tawny port (optional)
- 1 T. sherry or red-wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Cut the onion in half and then into quarters. Slice them about ¼-inch thick. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Toss the oil and onion to combine them, then add the thyme, the port or sherry, and the vinegar.
Cover and “sweat” the onion until it has softened. Remove the lid and turn the heat to low. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is deep brown and caramelized, and the mixture is thick and almost gooey. This can take quite a while, a half hour or more, especially if you’re making a larger quantity. Makes about 1 cup.
Note: Sherry vinegar is available locally at Incredibly Delicious, 925 S. Seventh St. It’s one of my pantry staples, something I always have on hand. Nutty and faintly sweet, it enhances many foods, especially onions, ham and other smoked meats and fish, blue cheeses and seafood; it makes a fantastic vinaigrette for salads.