I love you, burnt cheese.
July 30, 2012 4:43 PM   Subscribe

Why does burnt food taste better?

I was making cheeseburgers and the cheese once again melted off the burger down into the pan where it burned to a solid, crispy cheese. As I was scraping these little delicacies out of the pan, I wondered why it is that cheese, and several other foods, taste better when they are burned.

I'm wondering if there is an actual scientific answer for this as in the case of onions, where cooking them caramelizes the sugar, rather than an explanation along the lines of - we get used to and develop a taste for burned food. It seems that common foods that a lot of people like burned are cheese, meat and toast. But I also like slightly burned pancakes and I'm wondering is it's because there's something inherently good about them or if I just got used to the taste after regularly cooking them on too high a heat when I was a student, burning them and then just eating them anyway.

I'm counting on you, science.
posted by triggerfinger to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: While it's not quite the same process as caramelization, you might want to read up on the Maillard reaction.
posted by un petit cadeau at 4:48 PM on July 30, 2012 [8 favorites]

Do you mean burned like blackened? Like charcoal?
posted by purpleclover at 4:49 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: Maillard reaction. I am not a chef, but heat induces some shift in the amino acid chain -- similar to fermentation but at a faster pace.
posted by at the crossroads at 4:52 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not like charcoal. Like when the cheese melts into the pan and turns brown and crispy. Or when you burn a marshmallow over a fire. Or when people ask for their bacon extra-crispy. That kind of burn. Not blackened to within an inch of its life.
posted by triggerfinger at 4:54 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: Yup, you're talking about the Maillard reaction. No doubt about it.
posted by Scientist at 5:01 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've done a little more reading on it and it does seem as though it is indeed the Maillard reaction. This page has a slightly-less-technical-than-wikipedia explanation:

The Maillard reaction is not a single reaction, but a complex series of reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars, usually at increased temperatures. Like caramelization, it is a form of non-enzymatic browning.

In the process, hundreds of different flavour compounds are created. These compounds in turn break down to form yet more new flavour compounds, and so on. Each type of food has a very distinctive set of flavour compounds that are formed during the Maillard reaction.

Maillard reactions are important in baking, frying or otherwise heating of nearly all foods. Maillard reactions are (partly) responsible for the flavour of bread, cookies, cakes, meat, beer, chocolate, popcorn, cooked rice. In many cases, such as in coffee, the flavour is a combination of Maillard reactions and caramelization. However, caramelization only takes place above 120-150 °C, whereas Maillard reactions already occur at room temperature.

Here's another good explanation, and here is a google books result that talks specifically about the Maillard reaction and cheese.

Thank you Mefi! I knew there had to be a name for this!
posted by triggerfinger at 5:48 PM on July 30, 2012

I think the Maillard reaction is more the 'how' burned food tastes so good than the 'why'.

Dogs and cats seem to me to be more excited by raw meat than cooked, for another possible point of view.

I'm not sure we know why we like burned food so much.
posted by jamjam at 6:41 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may be difficult to assess because what's well-done/golden brown to one person is burned to another. Same with coffee -- I've known some coffee drinkers who've always been drinking a light roast, and are used to that flavor. When served a dark-roasted coffee, they insist on calling it "burned".
posted by Rash at 7:20 PM on July 30, 2012

I'm not sure we know why we like burned food so much.

There's a school of anthropological thought that believes cooking food made it more easily digested, which is how we got the extra calories to grow our large brains. The fact that we find the results of the Maillard reaction so tasty is one of the pieces of evidence cited. The argument is compelling, although the dates aren't quite right to say for certain that cooking drove the development of human intelligence.
posted by TungstenChef at 7:23 PM on July 30, 2012

Response by poster: I know it is difficult to assess because of course everything is subjective. But there seem to be certain foods that a LOT of people like slightly burnt. Things such as cheese or charred meat (this seems to be a specialty at some BBQ places), so that's kind of where I wonder what's going on. I was kind of wondering if the burning made it somehow sweeter or more savory. I mean, I think it does, but I don't know if that's something that's measurable. I can accept that my burnt pancakes might be an "only me" thing. :)
posted by triggerfinger at 7:35 PM on July 30, 2012

Cooking not only makes food more digestible, it also gives us access to foods that would otherwise be inedible (potatoes, for instance), and delays spoilage so that food is safer to eat. I am skeptical about the theory that it made our brains grow (brain size is mostly determined by genetics, not diet) but people who liked the taste of cooked food would have certainly had some selective advantage in terms of being better nourished and less likely to starve.

So if you want an evo-psych hypothesis for why we like the taste of cooked food in general, I would venture that it may be because our ancestors who liked cooked food had higher fitness than those who didn't (they were able to successfully raise more children due to having better access to nourishment) and they passed that preference on to their progeny genetically.

It wouldn't have had to be totally a genetically-determined preference, though. It could also have been passed on culturally, and probably was and is, at least in part. A lot of our food preferences are down to enculturation (c.f. durian fruit, "double-salt" liquorice, raw seal blubber, etc) and parents especially teach their kids (not necessarily intentionally) what foods taste good and what foods taste bad. Someone who likes cooked food could pass that preference on to their children culturally rather than genetically, conveying a selective advantage without the need for genetic inheritance.

My money would be that it's a mixture of both, though I can't say which would've come first.
posted by Scientist at 8:14 PM on July 30, 2012

Not only BBQ places, triggerfinger. Go to a Greek restaurant and order Saganaki. They bring out some cheese on a platter (I usually see feta) with some kind of alcohol, lit on fire at the table, and extinguished with lemon juice. You can request extra burn time. Yes, you are having burnt cheese as an appetizer. With bread or crackers or whatever.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:27 PM on July 30, 2012

brain size is mostly determined by genetics, not diet

not true!...our average brain size has increased by several ounces in the last ~150 years...the change in our diet is MASSIVE compared to any genetic drift over the same period...the same would be true of any species that was suddenly able to double it's food supply...you would see a rapid increase in overall physical size and thus brain size...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:30 PM on July 30, 2012

Best answer: It's the Malliard reaction AND umami.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:43 PM on July 30, 2012

Burned food does not taste better, at least to most people.

A nice crispy cheese, say some grated cheddar that has been fried up until it turns bubbly and crispy but is still basically cheese colored is not burned. Most people like their toast to be, well, toasted. Somewhere between light brown and dark brown. Chilies are roasted over an open flame until the skins blister, but they aren't burned.

Some people do like food that's actually burned. Tortillas that have turned entirely black on the outside, extra extra well done meats, cookies that have a hard layer of black charcoal on the bottom. Toast will be black and is considered overdone if it's on fire. I don't know why someone would prefer their food like that, but I try not to let them cook.

Beware in claiming you like burned food -- someday, someone will be so happy to have someone to cook for.
posted by yohko at 11:55 PM on July 30, 2012

Check out this Google Books Excerpt of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. It is one of the go-to books for this sort of thing.
posted by spanishbombs at 12:25 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

jamjam: Dogs and cats seem to me to be more excited by raw meat than cooked, for another possible point of view.
I've always noticed the exact opposite. My dog eats a raw diet, but considers cooked food infinitely superior (as he does doughnuts and hard candy).

One could say, "Well, it's a treat to him!", but when dogs visit, they are fascinated by his raw meat, but generally sniff, lick, and abandon it for their own dog food - or table scraps.

Cooked food is easier to digest, for both humans and many mammals. The heat breaks down complex starches and proteins, work that the body otherwise has to do (or subtask to gut bacteria).
posted by IAmBroom at 9:17 AM on August 16, 2012

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