Vintage Pacific NW: Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we’ll be revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published March 31, 2006
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste writer

BROWNING FOOD is an old piece of kitchen magic with roots well below the horizon at the dawn of history. As far as anyone can tell, it’s been going on everywhere for as long as people have been cooking their food. But the science of what makes food brown has been only recently unraveled.

Two pieces of the same kind of food — whether onions, slices of bread or rumps of wildebeest — will taste differently if they are cooked in different ways. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that something cooked over live coals or seared in hot oil will taste more interesting than the same thing cooked in water.

The difference is largely a matter of temperature; unless it’s trapped under pressure, water can never be hotter than its own boiling point, 212° F, and at that relatively low temperature, most food simply will not brown. And browning is the key to a world of flavor.

One big part of browning is the formation of caramel, which is simultaneously among the simplest and most complex foods imaginable. On the one hand, it is nothing more than browned sugar. But sugar, as it browns, disintegrates and reassembles itself into a composite of chemicals that run the gamut from sweet and nutty to bitter and sour. In between are whiffs of sherry in oak, hints of ripening apples and suggestions of melted butter.

But there is more to browning than simple caramelization of sugars. In “On Food and Cooking,” food scientist Harold McGee describes “Maillard reactions,” the browning that occurs in foods that are not primarily sugars, named for Louis Maillard, a French physician who chronicled his observations of these reactions around 1910.

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Since they involve more complex chemicals to begin with — proteins and fats in addition to carbohydrates — Maillard reactions are even more complex than caramelization. At high temperatures, the sulfur and nitrogen compounds in protein separate and come back together like bits of colored glass inside a kaleidoscope to form new aromatic chemicals that evoke everything from wood smoke, onions, leather and chocolate, to a host of floral and vegetal delights impossible to pin down.

Not long ago, I was thinking about all this as I browned a piece of beef in a shallow puddle of melted sugar. I was lost in a chemically inspired reverie when my 12-year-old, who was lured away from his video game by the heavenly aromas wafting from the kitchen, brought me back to Earth.

“Dad!” he said. “That smells so good! What are you making?”

“I’m making beef in caramel sauce,” I said.

“Sounds gross,” he countered matter-of-factly. “But it smells amazing. When will it be ready?”

Caramel with savory dishes does sound gross if you think of caramel as candy, but to me, it makes perfect sense. Think of “Kitchen Bouquet,” the stuff in the little brown bottle that midcentury homemakers used to add to dishes like onion soup and roast beef to make them brown. The flavor-enhancer, or whatever it is called, is essentially caramel.

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I started using a small amount of caramelized sugar to add flavor and color to savory dishes years ago, and eventually it occurred to me that the caramel itself would make a good starting point for simple home-cooked dishes like braised meats. And thanks to Maillard reactions, which McGee describes as “even more fortunate and complex” than caramelization, the results are phenomenal.

It might be science, but it tastes like magic. 

Caramel Braised Cube Steak with Garlic and Thyme
Serves 4

Cube steak is an inexpensive cut of beef that has been tenderized with rolling cutters. Still, it is a relatively tough cut that requires slow-braising in order to become fully tender. Browned in caramelized sugar, the braised steak has a compelling depth of flavor, not sweet but rich. Serve with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable; the pan juices make a wonderful sauce.

1 (24-ounce) cube steak
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 cloves garlic
¾ cup water
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water

1. Choose an enameled or cast-iron pan barely large enough to accommodate the steak, and put the dry pan over medium-high heat. Scatter the sugar over the surface of the pan. The sugar will melt, unevenly at first; stir it with a wooden spoon or a spatula until it is a deep brown and completely melted pool covering the bottom of the pan.

2. Sprinkle the cube steak with the salt and pepper and, using tongs to avoid getting splashed with hot caramel, lay the steak gently to rest in the molten sugar. The steak will immediately begin to sizzle and brown. When it is well-browned on one side, after about 30 seconds, turn it over and brown the other side.

3. Put the garlic cloves in the pan around the steak, and pour in the water. Sprinkle the thyme leaves over the drowned steak, and tuck the bay leaf into the liquid. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low and allow the steak to simmer gently in the caramel sauce until it is fork-tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

4. Transfer the steak from the pan to a cutting board, and let it rest while you finish the sauce. Increase the temperature to high, and whisk the cornstarch mixture into the pan juices; bring the sauce to a boil, and let it boil for a minute. Carve the steak into 12 or 16 slices, and distribute the slices evenly over four serving plates. Top each serving with the caramel sauce.