Caramelization involves another complex set of nonenzymic browning reactions. While both Maillard reactions and caramelization create brown flavorful compounds, caramelization differs from the Maillard reaction in several important ways. Firstly, the reaction takes place between sugar molecules; no proteins or amino acids are involved in this reaction. Secondly, the required temperature needed to induce the reaction is higher for caramelization (starting at 320–356°F/160–180°C) than the Maillard reaction (typically 12–284°F/100–140°C). Finally, the reaction for caramelization is an oxidation reaction leading to long polymers of sugars with some shorter volatile compounds.
With the exception of most candies, which are primarily sugar and fats, most cooked dishes have Maillard and caramelization reactions happening concurrently, and both contribute to flavor. Braised beef, beer, and chocolate are just a few foods and drinks that owe much of their taste to a combination of Maillard reactions and caramelization. Caramels made solely from sugars are used in puddings or desserts including nougats, caramel brittles, and custards, while the process of caramelizing sugars in protein‐containing foods contributes to the flavors one associates with browned onions, carrots, and coffee/cocoa beans.
Browning describes both flavoring processes, but it is important for a careful cook to know the difference. Once both processes are understood, there is a world of opportunity to create interesting flavors and foods. Caramelization is the process of degrading mono‐ and disaccharide sugars to form large polymers and volatile flavor molecules.