Seems like a question that would've been asked before, but I couldn't find a pre-existing question. Sorry if this is a duplicate.

Anyway, I do a lot of stir-fry, usually with chicken. My usual method -- I cube the chicken, then brinerate it in soy sauce, brown sugar, a bit of oil, and ginger. Then I dry it off with paper towels, heat a cast-iron to 400-500*F, then add a little peanut oil and put a small amount of the chicken in at one time. I wait for that to cook, pull it out, make sure the pan's reheated, then add another small amount of the chicken. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked.

I've run into a couple problems though.
1) It takes a very long time to follow those steps. Drying the chicken is slow and messy, and seems overly pedantic. The amount of chicken I can cook at one time and still get a maillard reaction is very little.

2) The browning reaction is very inconsistent. Sometimes it's perfect, sometimes it doesn't work at all. Usually if I follow these steps to the extreme (like, 4-5 small cubes of chicken at one time) I can always get a reaction, but that just takes waaaaay too long.

So, what tricks can I use to help ensure that a Maillard reaction occurs? Are there any ways I can speed up the whole process?

5 Answers 5


I've added some baking soda (specifically to onions while making French Onion Soup) to accelerate the Maillard reaction in the past and it seems to work rather well.

A few more general steps can be taken to encourage this reaction:

add protein (egg, milk), reducing sugar (glucose, fructose or lactose), remove water, increase temperature/pH

I read this article a while back on accelerating the Maillard Reaction and found it very interesting; I think it may be helpful to you as well! http://blog.khymos.org/2008/09/26/speeding-up-the-maillard-reaction/

  • 4
    While a higher pH does enhance Maillard, it also changes the taste. Usually towards soapy. If you use very small amounts, it can go undetected, but it doesn't change the result that much. So I avoid using this trick.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 17:55

In my opinion the Maillard reaction isn't all that essential in Eastern cooking because of the myriad of other strong flavours going on. I don't think I've ever had browned chicken in a Chinese takeout.

I always use a method called velveting when cooking chicken for stir fries. Take a couple of egg whites and add a tablespoon of cornstarch and 2 teaspoons salt. Whisk together, and add your chicken. Marinade for as long as is convenient. Get a saucepan of water on the boil. Add the chicken all in one go, return to the boil, and cook for 5 minutes or so - until the chicken is all white.

Drain well in a colander and let it steam for a bit to dry it out. Give it a quick stir fry with soy and rice wine (mainly for a little color), and it's ready to go. It gives the most wonderful, tender result, without the odd jelly-like consistency that meat tenderiser can cause.

  • 2
    I disagree with the statement that "the Maillard reaction isn't all that essential in Eastern cooking". The Maillard reaction is essential in the production of Wok Hei, which is the cornerstone of many (most?) stir fries.
    – ESultanik
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 20:57
  • That's more a product of repeated charring of fragments onto the wok which 'rub off' onto the food though isn't it? The velveting method actually helps to build wok hei as quite of a bit of cornstarchy chicken sticks to the wok and caramelizes. Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 7:05
  • If the wok is properly seasoned and hot enough, nothing should stick to it. Furthermore, many traditional recipes like beef chow fun don't even call for any starch on the proteins, yet they rely on wok hei for their distinctive flavor. For example, check out this video. With that said, bits of the food and particularly the oil will instantaneously combust on the surface of the wok creating these distinctive flavors, but I don't know if that's what you mean by 'rub off'.
    – ESultanik
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 12:48

I use the exact same process that you have described. Without resorting to Vecta's approach of increasing the pH, the only thing I can think of is to bump up your heat. Short of buying a professional wok burner (which would likely require expensive ventilation upgrades for use indoors), Alton Brown recommends using an inexpensive turkey fryer burner outside. That should be able to get you in the Wok Hei zone, a feat of which most residential ranges/cooktops are incapable. Just make sure to cut your chicken relatively thin to avoid burning the outside before the inside is cooked.


Vecta's answer points to the key as I see it to ensure Maillard reactions: reduce water.

Since Maillard reactions require higher temperatures than is possible in the presence of water (over boiling point) it may be the soy sauce that's causing some of your problems. Have you considered eliminating the soy sauce from your marinade and then adding it later?

Particularly if the chicken is going to rest a bit while you prepare the other parts of the stir fry, you could add the soy sauce later in in the process. The flavor will be different, but it will be much easier to get the nice browning you're looking for, and will eliminate the drying step.

You could either create a sort of dry rub for the chicken, or use oil as the liquid in the marinade.

  • Good idea, I'll definitely try eliminating the soy sauce next time. If nothing else it'd make it a lot easier to dry.
    – Xepo
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 19:38

In Asian stir fry dishes, if the protein components are stir fried from raw they do not undergo large Maillard reactions

Many stir fry dishes actual call for pre-cooked protein, such as roast Chicken/Duck or deep fried Tofu. These have already undergone significant Maillard reactions, and are just stirred in to heat up and combine with the sauces

There is of course still plenty of overall Maillard reactions happening to the entire stir fry. If this is not happening you may need a more powerful gas burner and a proper Asian style wok?

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