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Caramelizing vs. Browning

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2009

Many meat and vegetable recipes include a step where the ingredients are either caramelized or browned. Are caramelizing and browning the same thing?

In a word, no. Lots of people—even professional chefs—use “caramelize” and “brown” interchangeably, but if you look at the science behind these flavor-boosting techniques, they’re actually quite different. (Though both, of course, lead to a literal “browning” of the food.)

Caramelization describes the chemical reactions that take place when any sugar is heated to the point that its molecules begin to break apart and generate hundreds of new flavor, color, and aroma compounds. Consider crème brûlée—after being exposed to high heat, the sugar atop the custard turns golden brown with rich, complex caramelized flavors. (A similar process takes place when you cook onions, carrots, apples, or any other high-sugar fruit or vegetable—the food’s sugars caramelize once most of the moisture has evaporated.)

As for browning, here the process involves the interaction of not just sugar molecules and heat but also proteins and their breakdown products, amino acids. Some of the foods that benefit from browning are grilled and roasted meats and bread. Like caramelizing, browning creates a tremendous number of flavors and colors, but they’re not the same as those created by caramelization because protein is involved. In case you’re wondering, another name for browning is the Maillard reaction, after Louis Camille Maillard, the French chemist who first described it in the 1900s.