During the 1980s, the red drum population along the Gulf Coast was decimated by overfishing. Demand for the fish (also known as redfish) had soared to such unprecedented levels that the National Marine Fisheries Service was forced to ban commercial harvests in federal waters and limit recreational anglers to one fish per person per trip.
Arguably, the surge in demand had little to do with the fish itself, which is mild; firm fleshed; and considered comparable to red snapper, grouper, and black sea bass. The root cause was the way locals were cooking it—specifically Paul Prudhomme and his wife, K. Hinrichs, at their acclaimed K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans. Allegedly riffing on a grilling method that he’d picked up during his childhood, Prudhomme dipped the fillets in melted butter, dredged them in a classic Cajun spice blend, and flashed them in a ripping-hot cast-iron skillet with more melted butter. The fat and spices smoked and charred just enough to give the coating a primal, boundary-pushing savoriness that stopped just short of fully burnt.
“What you do is, you’re not burning it, you’re blackening it,” Prudhomme explained in a 1986 interview for the San Bernardino County Sun. “The reason you blacken,” he said, “is because it gives you the ultimate taste.”
His customers agreed. They went wild for “blackening,” and chefs all over the country copied the method—hence the overfished red drum. Soon chefs were blackening all sorts of proteins, including other types of fish and shellfish, chicken cutlets, and steak. Prudhomme even launched a line of retail Cajun spice blends, headlined by Blackened Redfish Magic and Blackened Steak Magic, which became pantry staples for home cooks who aspired to blacken foods in their own kitchens.
But here’s the rub: Blackening is a smoky business, the kind of cooking that trips alarms and requires high-powered ventilation. Those side effects have been enough to keep home cooks like me from attempting the method, despite its appeal as a speedy, ultrasimple way to jazz up workaday proteins such as chicken cutlets. So what I really aspired to do was blacken without so much billowing smoke.
The Art (and Science) of Blackening
Whether you’re searing meat, frying potatoes, baking bread, or caramelizing sugar, color is a pretty good indicator of flavor development, and a rich shade of brown is usually the goal. It’s a visual cue that proteins and/or sugars in the food have undergone either Maillardization or caramelization—both complex chemical reactions that break down a food’s molecules and cause them to react with each other, creating hundreds of new flavor compounds that smell and taste delightfully complex. Maillard browning boasts savory, meaty, roasty, buttery depth; caramelization can overlap with the roasty, buttery profile, but it skews more bitter and sharp.
By that color spectrum logic, a surface that has merely tanned hasn’t reached its full flavor potential, and one that has blackened entirely has overshot the mark and burned. But there’s a zone of prized, next-level flavor and complexity as food pushes past the browning phase and elements of charred flavor come into being and coexist with the browned flavors. A crème brûlée’s torched sugar crust, the charry edges of barbecued brisket, blistered aromatics in curry paste, and the smoking milk solids and spices that define Prudhomme’s blackening technique all live here, and they’re thanks to an entirely different set of chemical reactions, called pyrolysis. The term, which is rooted in the Greek words for “fire” and “to break” or “release,” refers to decomposition brought on by high temperatures—in essence, burning. When proteins and sugars are heated to temperatures above 350 degrees, the compounds they formed during Maillardization and caramelization break down even further into smaller molecules that taste deeply roasty, tarry, smoky, and bitter, offering a dark allure all their own. The trick to doing it well is restraint: Food can take only a modest dose of pyrolysis before it tastes truly burnt.
I needed to know exactly what about the typical blackening method causes heavy smoke, so I set myself up to try it with chicken cutlets. Besides boneless, skinless breasts, which I pared and pounded myself to guarantee uniformly thick pieces that cooked evenly, I grabbed butter, a slew of dried spices and herbs that appear in a typical blackening blend (paprika, garlic and onion powders, salt, black and cayenne peppers, thyme, and oregano), and a 12-inch cast-iron skillet. I let the pan get good and hot over a high flame, and then I laid a few of the buttered, spice-rubbed cutlets on the surface.
Make Even Cutlets
Halve chicken breast crosswise. Halve thicker piece horizontally. Place cutlets between sheets of plastic wrap and gently pound to 1/3-inch thickness.
The smoke puffed almost immediately—and very noticeably from portions of the pan not covered by chicken. That made sense, since the chicken cooled the pan where it touched it, but where there was no meat to absorb energy, just fat and juices on bare metal, they heated, bubbled, and smoked heavily. So I made a few adjustments to the chicken itself: First, I pounded the cutlets really thin (about 1/3 inch thick), which created more surface area to blanket the skillet and also helped the chicken cook through faster (just a minute or two on each side) so that there was less time for the fat and spices to burn. A side benefit: More surface area for the meat meant a higher proportion of butter and spices in each bite. Second, I arranged the cutlets (six per batch, cooked in two batches) in the pan like jigsaw puzzle pieces that minimized the negative space and, thus, the smoke.
Keep Smoke to a Minimum
The combination of butter, a spice rub, and fiercely hot cast iron gives blackened foods their beyond-Maillard color and depth—and usually sends smoke billowing from the pan. Here’s how this recipe helps limit that.
Using just 3 tablespoons of butter and wiping out the skillet between batches means that there are fewer milk solids and less fat in the pan to burn.
MAKE THIN CUTLETS
Pounded thin, the cutlets cook quickly, so the rub doesn’t burn.
COVER COOKING SURFACE
Arranging the cutlets like jigsaw puzzle pieces minimizes the pan’s exposed surface area—and the potential for fat or juices to smoke.
Cut the Fat
The other major factor behind the smoke was the prodigious amount of butter. When Prudhomme blackened fish fillets, he used about 8 tablespoons per pound of fish, and the fat’s abundant milk proteins made for thick plumes. Plus, I noticed in my own tests that much of the butter and spice rub dripped off the cutlets when they hit the hot pan, leaving me with a sooty mess and a spotty spice crust. So I knocked the butter way down to 3 tablespoons for about 2 pounds of chicken—frankly, the dish didn’t need more richness than that—and instead of melting it as a coating that would “glue” the spices to the meat, I dredged the chicken in the spices and added the butter directly to the pan. (I also added a teaspoon of oil to the cold skillet as a temperature gauge, knowing that butter would smoke before the pan was sufficiently hot.) The spices clung nicely to the moist chicken, leaving just a thin film that I wiped out of the pan between batches to avoid burning. Along with the milk solids in the butter, they took on that deeply rich, toasty, “blackened” character that I amped up even more by adding smoked paprika to the rub.
Collectively, those changes hugely reduced the smoke output from the pan. (Admittedly, some smoke is inevitable with blackening and any searing, so I still made sure to power on the exhaust fan.) And since cooking both batches of chicken took all of 6 minutes and delivered juicy, robustly spiced cutlets, I considered my retooled blackening method a win for all of us home cooks looking for big payoff from our everyday proteins.