Barbecue season is upon us, which means that soon the night air will carry the savory smell of grilling meats. But what causes that smell, exactly? Raw meat certainly doesn’t smell like that. Bread doesn’t smell like toast, nor can a fresh-from-the-bag marshmallow compete with the mouth-watering aroma of its gooey, golden-brown version. As you’ll see in the video above, all three delicious transformations are the result of a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction.

Louis Camille Maillard was a doctor and chemist practicing in France around the turn of the 20th century. Concerned about his patients with diabetes, Maillard began paying close attention to the chemistry of food. He noticed that cooking raw meats, vegetables, and other foods changed their smell, taste, and color and produced carbon dioxide. He suspected that the same reaction was responsible for these effects across the board. Eventually he determined that this phenomenon was the result of reactions between amino acids and sugars—reactions that produce volatile, or aromatic, compounds.

Want to make the most of your Maillard? Check out the video to get tips on the optimal temperature and even pH balance for setting those delicious chemical reactions in motion. 

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