Sugars. Amino acids. Maillard reactions. And why caramelization is part of caramel (and not the other way round).
Look at the caramel in the photo. Imagine taking a big beautiful generous scoop of it, and spooning it into your mouth. Feel its golden buttery thickness kiss your lips before wrapping itself around your tongue. Its sweetness fills your mouth as its nutty aroma wafts up your nose. It slowly oozes down your throat, urging you to take spoon another generous scoop into your mouth.
That’s sweet caramel for you. We can not only eat it on its own, sweet as it is, we also taste it in other delectable treats such as chocolates or drizzling some of it generously over ice cream. It’s quite a versatile ingredient.
And every time we have a craving, all we need to do is to caramelize some sugar, right?
Only half right. Caramel, despite sounding like the root word of caramelization, is one of those root words in language and cooking that sometimes causes confusion in science. Caramelization happens when we break down sugar (and sugar only) by heat (read all about it in this “Burn (sugar) baby burn” 1-Minute NomNom).
Caramel, on the other hand, has at least one more ingredient: butter. Most recipes would also include cream and corn syrup to complete the ingredients mix. The butter gives you an idea of underlying science.
The amino acids in the butter react with the sugars through, you guessed it, Maillard reactions. These form new flavor compounds that react with more amino acids to form much larger molecules, giving us the golden brown caramel and also the brown crusts we see on meats, breads, pastries, and donuts (read all about it in the “How now, brown cow?” 1-Minute NomNom)
Making caramel involves both caramelization and Maillard reactions. Look for example at this recipe from Wikihow. We first heat the sugar (in water) to 160°C/320°F and higher. As there is only sugar present, caramelization kicks in. Once the sugars have sufficiently caramelized, we mix in the butter, turn off the heat, and keep whisking. The Maillard reactions occur between 140°C/284°F to 165 °C/329°F). Hence as we stir in the butter, we get the Maillard reactions, which continue even as the temperature cools down.
Caramelization and the Maillard reactions are both non-enzymatic types of browning i.e. no enzymes are involved, only heat and temperature in this case. They work together to give us a richer and more complex range of flavors, colors and aromas than each of them can on their own. Scientists still do not fully understand both processes yet, but cooks and chefs are glad that has not stopped us from using them in so many ways to make our foods yummier.
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