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In House, MD, in season six episode three the main character tags along to a cooking class with his best friend, Wilson. During the subsequent scene, they engage in a conversation which ends up distracting Wilson, causing him to begin burning his meatballs. As he notes, they're still raw inside, and he needs to continue cooking them without burning.

To combat this, House adds vinegar with a brush, stating that it would slow the maillard reaction because of the acidity.

Is this possible, and if so, how would it affect the flavor of the meatballs?

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The OP's answer is correct that this theoretically should have an effect, but I have my doubts about its practicality for a few reasons:

  • The goal is supposedly to "reduce burning," which implies carbonization. Carbonization happens most rapidly at higher temperatures (over 400F or so) compared to the ideal temperatures for Maillard reactions. Thus, you can very easily go quickly from underdone to burnt at very high temperatures. Decreasing Maillard reactions is not the problem; it's too high of a temperature leading to carbonization. Wilson should just turn down the heat. Increasing Maillard will just make more of a thicker "brown crust" giving the meatballs more of a "fried" texture. Most people wouldn't find that too objectionable.
  • Vinegar is a rather dilute acid and is mostly water. Water will also inhibit the Maillard reactions by lowering the surface temperature of the meatballs. Effectively, before the meatballs can begin browning again, the water will mostly need to be evaporated, so the surface will "steam" for a bit at lower temperatures, again inhibiting browning. Anyhow, the larger problem with this from a practical standpoint is splatter. Introducing a bunch of mostly water onto a food right before frying will cause that water to vaporize when coming in contact with the oil and splattering. Also, the question is how much this acid will penetrate the meat surface and prevent browning vs. being effectively washed off during this vaporization and splattering. Unless you let the meatballs sit and absorb the acid for a few minutes before returning to the pan, I imagine most of the vinegar would just come off and be ineffective.
  • Even presuming that the acid stays on the meatballs and that we actually want to inhibit Maillard reactions (which I'm not sure we do), I don't know how effective a little bit of surface acidity is really going to be in this case. Keep in mind that many, many people prepare meat in marinades before cooking, which often contain acidity. While most people dry the meat before cooking, this surface acidity obviously doesn't seem to get too much in the way of browning and flavor reactions, or else people wouldn't put so much acid in marinades. The uneven surface of meatballs may lead to a little more absorption of acid than a solid cut of meat, but again I have some doubts about the magnitude of the effect.

Bottom line: I suppose this might delay browning for a couple minutes, at the risk of (maybe significant) splattering. It will NOT be very effective at stopping burning if the oil is too hot. The flavor of the meatballs shouldn't be affected (except from the direct flavor of the vinegar), other than the outside tasting like it was browned slightly less.

As OP's link in the answer notes, there are other ways to reduce the speed of Maillard reactions, notably reducing temperature of the pan and/or removing the meatballs and letting them rest (to cool the surface down a bit while some heat migrates inward) before finishing cooking. Reducing temperature seems a much easier and more effective solution in this case. Another alternative would just be to remove them from the pan and finish cooking in a low oven: the frying is to obtain the browned outer crust, and if that's done, there's no need to keep frying.

House's solution -- while technically intriguing -- seems overly complex and unlikely to be practical, but then again, that's why people tend to watch House....

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I theoretically can answer my own question, although I'm not 100% sure as to how it would affect the flavor.

Yes, you can.

When doing research, I saw that the maillard reaction preforms much more quickly at a higher PH. As per this article, making the reaction more basic quickens the browning process. As noted, increasing the speed at which it browns increases the number of reactions that occur, increasing the strength of the flavor. But, one can assume that the inverse is true, and that reducing the speed would possibly reduce the overall flavor of the meatballs. Of course, that's independent of the actual taste of the vinegar.

The author goes on to state other ways to alter the maillard reaction, stating how often people unknowingly make conditions favorable for the maillard reaction to occur, and how it can heavily effect your food's outcome. Pretty interesting.

I'm not sure if this is a widely used technique (either to speed up or slow down the reaction), but if anyone knows a chef or if they personally use this method, I'd love to hear with what types of situations you use it for.

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    I think your link covers a lot of common situations/techniques where chefs deliberately speed up the reactions. If you search this site for "Maillard," you'll find plenty of other questions specifically discussing various situations where the reactions occur and how to increase them. (It's less common to want to inhibit them for culinary purposes, and generally if you do, you just turn down the temperature.) – Athanasius Dec 6 '15 at 16:02

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