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Are there any common (non-toxic) household substances with boiling or smoke points close to the temperature at which the Maillard reaction occurs, 154°C?

I want to be able to check that my pan is around this temperature without using a thermometer before frying a steak.

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The 154°C factoid comes from Wikipedia, and it might not refer to the pan temperature. –  user4697 Jun 7 '11 at 14:37

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The Maillard reaction begins around 150° C. You do not need that exact temperature. Usually, you don't even want that exact temperature; even baking temperatures usually hover around 175-200° C (350-400° F), and those temperatures are held for 20 minutes or more. Pan-frying is almost always a fast cooking process lasting no longer than 10 minutes.

Thus, almost every cooking oil has a smoke point at or around the ideal temperature. Butter is a bit too low around 121-149° C (250-300° F), but the vast majority of liquid oils - peanut, sunflower, corn, canola, sesame, even EVOO - all have smoke points from 150-260° C (300-500° F).

See Wikipedia's list of smoke points for a fairly complete list. Avoid butter and unrefined flaxseed/safflower/sunflower oil (commercially-bottled oil is almost always refined, except for EVOO).

Of course, this doesn't say anything about cooking time or sticking. When we talk about frying or sautéing in oil (i.e. to get the Maillard reaction going), we usually want a quick sear, and for that you really want to get the pan screaming hot so that you can get a good sear on the outside without doing much to the inside. Clarified butter, coconut oil, or any other of the highly-refined oils are the best for that purpose.

If you're really trying to prolong the cooking time, i.e. pan-frying a chicken breast all the way through, then I guess you'd stick with a lower smoke point oil, such as EVOO or unrefined peanut or sesame.

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You are completely correct about the smoke points, but it isn't necessarily the case that you don't want to exceed them. Watch any old episode of Molto Mario, e.g. and you'll see him searing in a smoking hot pan of evoo. It actually tastes delicious that way, though there are health concerns that may be an issue. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Jun 7 '11 at 16:28
    
@Michael: You should check out this answer and in particular the linked article for McGee. It's sort of anecdotal, but it jibes with my own experience - EVOO heated to the point of smoking has almost no flavour, and in extreme cases can even make a fresh, high-quality oil almost unpalatable. To each his own, of course, but I save my EVOO for condiments and dressings. –  Aaronut Jun 7 '11 at 20:53
    
@Aaaronut - I think it is a fairly big limitation in the McGee article that he only tries them heated by themselves. There is all sorts of ways the results could be different if he had used them to actually cook something. I'll have to try more head-to-head tests myself but I feel pretty certain that I can taste different flavors when sauteeing in evoo (at temps well above 350) vs. canola (which I also use when I want a neutral taste). –  Michael at Herbivoracious Jun 8 '11 at 7:03
    
@Michael - I would say that it was a necessary control, although it's true that there may be additional side-effects relating to the food that's being fried, which weren't captured by the experiment. More experiments with specific foods (steak, onions, greens, other vegetables, etc.) would have made it more convincing. Still, it is an interesting consideration; it's often all too easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we can perceive things that aren't there. –  Aaronut Jun 8 '11 at 15:34
    
That is very true. More research needed. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Jun 9 '11 at 2:25

As you mention in your comment, 154°C doesn't refer to the pan temperature, it refers to the temperature of the thing being browned, so there's no point in being too precise with your pan temperature, which will decrease a bit anyway when you put the steak in. In any case, 154°C is only when the Maillard reaction starts; it's not like you're trying to maintain the pan at that temperature.

Just get your pan really, really hot, i.e. leave it on high heat for a good 5 minutes before you start to cook. If you really want to test it, corn oil's smoke point is 178°C, so if that starts smoking you're well on your way to browning anything you put in the pan.

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I was under the impression that higher temperatures caused even more carcinogens. Do you think that there's no point in trying to keep the temperature down? –  user4697 Jun 7 '11 at 15:03
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Well, you have to weigh up the risk of cancer with the desire to eat a decent steak. Sure, you can lightly brown the steak, but it may well be tough and lack flavour, not to mention the texture of a nice crust. In any case, unless you're eating cremated steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out, it's not like you're poking death in the eye. Everything you eat (or drink, or do) these days apparently causes cancer; in my opinion life's too short to worry about it. –  ElendilTheTall Jun 7 '11 at 15:08
    
Thanks! (It would still unnecessary if low temperatures were enough for a decent steak, though.) –  user4697 Jun 7 '11 at 15:11
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@Aaronut: Here is a study showing a link between high-heat red meat cooking and cancer. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10503902?dopt=Abstract There is also compelling evidence linking high red meat consumption to cancer. That doesn't stop me from loving a good steak. –  BobMcGee Jun 7 '11 at 15:35
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@Aaronut: The chemicals, heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (example: the napthalene in mothballs), are produced when you do the initial sear, and continue as long as it is kept at high temperature. So, if you sear or grill all the way to well-done it will have more carcinogens... but if you take it only to mid-rare it will have less. Of course, the sear-then bake approach will produce far less. Oddly enough, grilled chicken breasts are a worse offender than steaks, with 10x as much carcinogens! bit.ly/4CnlS9 –  BobMcGee Jun 7 '11 at 16:11

Use a piece of butter. When it has just started browning, pour it out (before it can smoke), and the pan is now hot enough to brown other things.

Allow an extra minute or two for the pan to get hotter, so it's well above the Maillard temperature after losing heat to your meat.

Or, just do what most people do, and let an EMPTY cast-iron pan get insanely hot and sear the heck out of the steak.

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With no fat at all in the pan? Isn't that going to be terrible to clean (unless you're making a sauce)? –  user4697 Jun 7 '11 at 16:12
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You can pre-oil the steak if you like, but when you sear in cast iron, it'll release after a minute or two when the searing is done. Something about the seasoning layer on cast-iron. Cleanup is actually quite simple once it releases. Now, if you're using doing something else using the butter trick, pour in a little oil before using the pan. –  BobMcGee Jun 7 '11 at 16:15

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