What the heck? There’s two types of browning in cooking, and both involve proteins. But what is the diff? Isn’t browning browning? No. There is a distinct difference between the two.
Ais the brown color that is attributed to the golden crust of baked goods, the browning of meats, and the dark deliciousness of roasted coffee. A Maillard reaction is between a sugar like dextrose, fructose, lactose or maltose, and the nitrogen part of an amino acid in protein, combined with heat, to produce the brown color we know and love. When this sugar is combined with the nitrogen, brown-colored complexes form.
Then what is enzymatic browning? This is the reaction in which an enzyme acts on a particular phenolic compound in the presence of oxygen to produce melanin, the brown color distinct to browned fruit like the bananas below. Another great example of this is when you cut an apple and leave it open in the air. When the apple is cut and left in the air, the phenols and enzymes within the fruit that are normally separate and protected within cells, combine in the presence of oxygen, and thus melanin or a brown-black pigment is formed. Also, when you add something acidic like lemon to a cut apple, what happens? The apple doesn’t brown. Why? Because the lemon acts as an anti-oxidant, and grabs all the little air molecules away from the fruit, taking away the reaction’s catalyst.
So, when you “brown” your meat, “caramelize” your onions, or bake something until it is “browned”, it is actually more accurate to say you caused your Maillard reaction to occur. Caramelized just sounds prettier. Not much that is pretty about browned fruit, though. So, there you have it. Browning and Maillard explained. Neat, huh?