Molecular Gastronomy

The chemistry behind baking



Caramelization is the process of sugars breaking down. This is often used as a general term to describe the Maillard Reaction. However, these two browning processes are very different. The Maillard Reaction is the break down of sugars in the presence of proteins, therefore it contributes to the browning and flavoring of bread crusts.

Simply speaking, caramelization is the process of removal of water from a sugar (such as sucrose or glucose) followed by isomerization and polymerisation. In reality the caramelization process is a complex series of chemical reactions, which is still poorly understood.

Below is a table listing the Stages of Caramelization.

Caramelization Stages Table

Caramelization is sensitive to its chemical surroundings. For example, the level of acidity (pH) must be controlled or else the reaction rate may be altered. Caramelization usually occurs slowest when when the acidity is near neutral (pH of 7), and it is accelerated under both acidic and alkaline conditions.The different stages of caramel production all have distinct names based on the characteristics of the product. “Thread” indicates the fact that sugar can be spun into soft or hard threads, “ball” indicates that sugar can easily be molded into a proper shape, and “crack” indicates that the sugar will hard after cooling (and crack when it is broken).

The animated video below expands more on The Maillard Reaction and Caramelization:

Things to keep in mind while watching the video:

  • What is the difference between Enzymatic and Non-Enzymatic Browning Reactions?
  • How does temperature affect the Maillard Reaction?
  • What are some desirable and undesirable affects for all three reactions?
  • What is the difference between the Maillard Reaction and Caramelization?
  • Which reactions occur in baked goods?

Look forward to our future posts discussing the chemistry of baking!

Author: Jamie Lee