The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Brown," Don't "Caramelize"

Here we go again.

I like Michael Symon. I really do. He's a talented chef, he's fun to watch, and he seems like a genuinely nice guy. But if he “caramelizes” one more piece of meat, I swear I'm going to stop watching “The Chew,” Iron Chef America,” and anything else he's on because it just raises my blood pressure.

Seriously, Michael. You went to the Culinary Institute, an establishment that I know for a fact teaches the difference between “caramelizing” and “browning.” Were you absent that day, or what?
To be sure, Michael is not the only TV chef to perpetuate this misnomer. Rachael Ray is bad about it, too. But I can be more forgiving since her culinary education came through the candy counter at Macy's. Formally trained chefs are another matter, though, and Michael is certainly among the most consistent and flagrant abusers. I mean, really; does he have a problem with the word “brown?” I wouldn't be surprised one of these days to hear him address his “Iron Chef” coworker as “Alton Caramelize.” Or maybe to call his beloved football team the Cleveland “Caramelizers.”

Certain people in certain professions adopt arcane vocabularies relevant to those professions. They basically stop speaking English because it somehow feels too common. Instead, they rely on words and phrases that they believe give them more gravitas or credibility or something. Cops are really bad for this. “The suspected perpetrator was apprehended while in the commission of a felonious act.” Translation: “The bad guy got caught.” But that doesn't sound officious enough, does it? Hence the excessive verbiage.

Now, I wouldn't be so peeved if Michael Symon, et. al. were merely overusing the term “caramelization.” But not only are they overusing it, it's the wrong term. Wrong, Michael, wrong! As in “not right.” As in “incorrect.” As in “inaccurate, erroneous, mistaken, sbagliato, erroneo.” (Thought maybe a little Italian would help.)

You do not, you cannot “caramelize” meat. It is scientifically impossible. Meat browns through a chemical process called the “Maillard reaction.” I guess “caramelize” just sounds more “cheffy.” After all, “caramelization” has five syllables – or six, depending on your pronunciation – while poor lowly “browning” has only two. So obviously “caramelization” is the better word because it's bigger, right? Never mind that it's wrong.

To illustrate, here's a quote from a book published by Michael's alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America; “The first step in many braises or stews is to brown the surface of the meat or poultry quickly in fat over high heat.” Later in the paragraph; “Brown the meat in batches without overcrowding.” Still more; “After the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and sauté a mixture of aromatics in the same fat.” “Brown” and “browned,” not “caramelize” and “caramelized.”

On page 299 of his excellent book, What Einstein Kept Under His Hat, food scientist and former Washington Post food columnist, Robert L Wolke, writes: “Much confusion exists between Maillard browning and sugar browning or caramelization. Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place. Heat accelerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122° F (50°C). The reactions can even proceed slowly at room temperature, such as when foods turn brown from age. In contradistinction, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250°F (120°C) – in the absence of an amino acid or other nitrogen-containing compound – takes place by a completely different set of complex chemical reactions, called caramelization. Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being cooked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”

And to further reinforce my point, I refer to the well-respected Harold McGee, whose exhaustive work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is almost an industry Bible. On page 688, McGee states, “Caramelization is the cooking of plain sugar syrup until it turns brown and aromatic. It is similar to the browning or Maillard reactions that give color and aroma to roasted meats, baked goods, and other complex foods, but unlike the browning reactions it proceeds in the absence of amino acids and proteins. It requires higher temperatures than the browning reactions, and produces a different mixture of aromatic compounds and therefore a different flavor. Cooks have spoken of 'caramelized' or 'carmelized' meats for better than a century, but this is not really correct.”

What's the big deal, you ask? Just this. Michael Symon and his colleagues are respected experts in their field. And they are public figures, exposed to millions of viewers on a daily basis. They are teachers. People trust them to be knowledgeable. So when Michael says the word “caramelize” fifty times in a single segment as he browns a piece of meat, millions of trusting viewers accept it as the proper term. They then begin to use it themselves, resulting in millions of people walking around ignorantly using an incorrect cooking term because they assumed their teacher knew what he was talking about. And that's just sad.

And lest you should think that I am but a lone annoying voice crying in the culinary wilderness, here's a comment I received on my food blog following a previous post on the subject: “Yay, thank you! I went looking for someone on the web to explain this correctly. I'm SO SICK of Rachel [sic] Ray using 'carmelize' interchangeably with 'brown.' I'm also sick of people like Sandra Lee pronouncing mascarpone as 'marscapone.' These are highly paid 'professionals'???”

I feel your pain, friend. And I've written at length on the subject of properly pronouncing food words and terms. What many of these TV chefs apparently don't realize is the fact that although some viewers tune in to these programs solely to be entertained, a lot more watch in order to gain some degree of education. And what kind of education are they getting when their instructors are ignorant?

As an example, my sixth-grade teacher. It was a small Indiana town and this man's country accent was so thick he could barely be said to be speaking English, much less teaching it. And when it came time for a unit on mythology, the things this ignoramus did to Roman and Greek names would have been laughable were it not so pathetic. He “taught” an entire generation of Hoosier kids that “AY-thens” was the capital of Greece and that the goddess of wisdom was called “ay-THEE-nee-uh.” He had no business being an educator.

Please, Michael, Rachael, and the rest of you meat caramelizers. If you went to culinary school, you know better. And even if you didn't, experience should have taught you the difference by now. I guess it doesn't matter what you call it in the confines of your kitchens, but when you move out into the larger world of food television, a place wherein you take up the mantle of instructor, you really need to properly represent your craft. Keep the good food and the great recipes coming, but be aware of what you're teaching your audience.


  1. THANK YOU!!! I yell at the tv every time some "celebrity chef" says they are caramelizing meat, chicken, even seafood.. Rachel said once that scallops are "just so full of sugar, they get that great caramelization on them".

    But can we discuss "au jus". Every time I hear a tv chef say, "now we'll make the au jus", or "dip it in the au jus". Aaaargh! It's JUS. Au jus means "with juice" (from the meat). You cannot make a "with juice", But you can serve something with juice "au jus"

    1. You're absolutely right and I have written at length about the whole "with with juice" issue. You can have something WITH a jus (juice) and you can have something AU JUS (with juice), but you can't have something with an "au jus." And the people who market packets of "Au Jus Sauce" should be boiled in their own product.

  2. On FoodTV Canada, the check Michael Smith uses caramelize every time he browns meat, which drives me batty! AND not only that, but he actually goes on to explain that "the sugars in the meat start to brown and change!"

    Thank you for your post because this drives me nuts!

  3. Sorry, that was supposed to read the 'chef Michael Smith'.