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Brown = umami = Maillard reaction

It would be easy to believe that the secret of cooking Chinese at home is as simple as using too much salt. That’s not it, though Chinese dishes certainly like salt. The real secret is the brownness. That’s where the umami flavor comes from. When foods are browned during cooking, that’s the Maillard reaction. Whether we’re talking about toast, grilled meat, roasted peanuts or even toasted marshmallows, every good cook must take advantage of the Maillard reaction.

Here’s an experiment. For years, I couldn’t figure out how to get fried rice to be brown. Just pouring some soy sauce into the pan did not seem to be the answer — though those umami-rich sauces are necessary as a finishing touch. I suppose that even rice, if it was in a skillet or a wok for long enough, would start to turn brown. But it’s much easier than that.

Brown your onions. Even after the onions come out of the pan, they’ll leave some of the brown behind in the pan. Your other stir-fry vegetables, as long as you don’t let them become watery, will add to the brown in your pan. If you’re brave enough not to be afraid of a little monosodium glutamate near the end of the stir-fry of your vegetables, it will triple the amount of brown (as well as the amount of umani). Remove the vegetables from the skillet or wok, then add the rice. The rice, as you toss it, will lift the brown off the bottom of the skillet. Not only is the rice now brown, it’s glazed with umami. If you can avoid it, never waste umami by leaving it in the bottom of a pan!

This deglazing is the same thing that cooks do when making gravy in a pan that was used to cook meat. Pour off the grease, and make the gravy in the roasting pan such that the brownness is recovered from the bottom of the pan. That brownness is a cook’s gold.

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