I'm sure – or at least I hope – that a trained chef knows the definition of “carmelization.” A non-enzymatic, or oxidative, process, caramelization is a chemical reaction – pyrolysis – in food that produces a nutty flavor and a brown color. BUT it is a reaction solely related to non-reducing sugars in certain foods.
There are two principal non-enzymatic browning processes. These are chemical reactions that turn foods brown without the activity of enzymes. By contrast, an apple turns brown when you cut it because of enzymatic activity in the presence of oxygen. The non-enzymatic processes are caramelization and the Maillard (MAH-yar) reaction.
I really don't want to go into page after boring page detailing disaccharides and monosaccharides and oligosaccharides and polysaccharides and closed ring structures and aldehydes and ketones and other stuff that blurs the vision and boggles the brain. So let's keep it simple.
Caramelization occurs when the aforementioned non-reducing sugars react to heat. Sucrose – common table sugar – is a non-reducing sugar. It begins to caramelize at 320°. The rate of caramelization is affected by pH balance, with the lowest rate occurring near neutral (pH7) levels and increasing as you go more acidic – for example pH3 – or more basic, like pH9. But there we go with all that mind-numbing scientific stuff again.
The Maillard reaction, named for a French chemist who first demonstrated it in 1910, occurs in the presence of amino acids. Sugars are involved, but they are what is known as “reducing sugars.” The carbonyl group of said sugar reacts with the amino group of the amino acid to produce browning and flavor changes. This process occurs when low moisture levels are present and temperatures reach around 310°. Different amino acids produce different levels of browning.
Still struggling to keep it simple, sugars are involved in both processes, but they are different sugars, or carbohydrates – a word everybody knows these days. The sugars that can caramelize are those that form simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits and vegetables. The sugars involved in the Maillard reaction are those that form the complex carbohydrates found in meats and grains. The nice brown color you see in toast, for instance, is not due to caramelization. It is a Maillard reaction.
In short – and simple – terms, there is no such thing as “caramelizing” meat. When you apply heat you “caramelize” fruits and vegetables to achieve changes in flavor and color, but those changes in meat are due to an entirely different chemical process. Since I've never heard anybody refer to “Maillard-izing” a cut of meat, let's just call it “browning,” shall we?
And a seasoned chef should know the difference. I sometimes think it's a matter of a person trying to sound educated beyond his or her intelligence or vice-versa. Given the choice between “caramelizing” and “browning,” which word sounds more “cheffy?” Never mind the people like me who sit and shout at the TV screen, “Idiota! You can't “caramelize” meat!” (Said people have to like to scream things in Italian.) “Caramelize” is a nice cheffy-sounding word that gets tossed around on TV a lot. But is it the correct word for all occasions? No. And with so many “Iron Chef” wannabes watching TV to gain or improve their culinary skills, the people imparting information on TV have to be especially careful to impart correct information, lest we turn out millions of home cooks who try to impress their friends and families by talking about how well “caramelized” the roast is.
Love ya, Michael, et.al., but it really is okay to just “brown” something.