It’s common knowledge that the flavors that result from browning are delicious.
Whether we’re talking about french fries, the burnished crust on a steak, or the crackly crust of bread, browning is a visual cue that proteins and/or sugars in the food have undergone either Maillardization or caramelization, two chemical reactions that result in hundreds of new flavor compounds that smell and taste delightfully complex.
But the flavor development doesn’t have to stop there. As food ventures beyond the browning phase and charred flavor enters the mix, it can take on an even deeper, more complex profile.
The key here is restraint: Burn your food too much and it’ll just taste, well, burnt. But char your food strategically, and you’ll be rewarded with tinges of bitterness, smoke, and roastiness.
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The Science of Char
Despite appearances, the deep browning-to-blackening when food chars isn’t just a further degree of Maillardization or caramelization.
It’s a different set of reactions entirely: pyrolysis and carbonization.
Pyrolysis, 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—a profile that would be overwhelming on its own but makes for an alluring accent when done in moderation.
What Is Blackened Food?
One technique that takes advantage of pyrolysis is blackening.
It’s a technique attributed to chef Paul Prudhomme and his wife, K. Hinrichs. At their acclaimed K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans in the 1980s, Prudhomme dipped fish 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. Prudhomme described it as “the ultimate taste.”
This is a tricky technique to try out at home. Without the high-powered ventilation of a restaurant kitchen, your kitchen can fill with smoke while you’re blackening, tripping alarms and sending you running to open windows.
Blackened ChickenA controlled burn pushes the savory depth of spice-rubbed proteins to another level.
Luckily, my colleague Steve Dunn engineered a way to blacken chicken that keeps smoking to a minimum. It took just a few strategic tweaks to the method: He minimized the amount of fat he used so that there would be fewer milk solids in the pan to burn; he pounded the chicken thin so that they would cook through quickly; and he covered as much of the pan’s surface as he could with cutlets, minimizing the pan’s exposed surface area and the potential for fat or juices to smoke. You can find his full recipe here.
Other Foods You Should Burn
Can’t get enough of this deep, smoky flavor profile? Here are a few more recipes that feature strategic spotty charring.