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The Maillard reaction, a form of non-enzymatic browning, refers to a cascade of chemical reactions that frequently occurs in the cooking of foods (e.g. baking of pastries, roasting of meats). It primarily starts as a reaction between amines and carbonyl compounds. It is stated on the Wikipedia page that the reaction is accelerated by alkaline conditions:

This process is accelerated in an alkaline environment (e.g., lye applied to darken pretzels), as the amino groups ($\ce {RNH3^+ → RNH2}$) are deprotonated, hence have an increased nucleophilicity.

Similar tips on using alkali to hasten the Maillard reaction have also been propagated on various cooking websites, even on cooking.stackexchange. In this post, I would like to investigate the chemistry behind this piece of advice.

The use of alkali is chemically sound since the first step of the initial stage of the reaction is the formation of a Schiff base from the amine and the carbonyl compound. However, is it a bit far-fetched to say that since the first step is accelerated, the entire reaction cascade is similarly sped up significantly?

More importantly, as I have mentioned previously in this post: Conditions for imine formation, the reaction is primarily catalysed by acid and not by base. Yes, nucleophilicity of the amine increases. However, the alkali medium does not facilitate the leaving of certain groups. Thus, the overall effect of the alkali may not be exactly favourable.

The fact of the matter is that alkalis, such as baking soda, have been used in cooking for a long period of time. Thus, it certainly does improve the taste of food by some mechanism. However, I question whether this mechanism is indeed the hastening of the Maillard reaction.

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