Get­ting that char just right

It’s a trend­ing flavour en­hancer at restaurants that de­mands a lot of tech­nique

Saturday Star - - FO OD L I F E S T Y L E - PHAEDRA HISE

JEREMIAH Langhorne bent over a small coal bed in front of the logstacked fire­box in the kitchen at the Dab­ney res­tau­rant.

As he fanned them, the coals red­dened and shot out sparks. The 500-de­gree heat from deep within the fire­box lashed out with an­gry blasts, but the chef’s glasses didn’t fog, and his bearded face be­trayed only a light mist­ing of sweat. He reached in, bare­handed, to spread some baby veg­eta­bles in a wire bas­ket set on the coals and keeps fan­ning.

“They’ll stick at first, so we’ll leave them alone for now,” he said. “Wait for when they start to glis­ten.”

What Langhorne was go­ing for is a good char. Char, of­ten con­fused with burn, is the dark edge on a cube of roasted but­ter­nut squash, that deep brown bub­ble on your pizza crust and the dark cross­hatch marks on your per­fectly grilled steak. Char is a trend­ing flavour en­hancer at restaurants and in pro­cessed foods, but home cooks of­ten end up burn­ing foods in­stead.

“A caramelised, pa­per-thin char layer gives you this smoke and wood flavour in the mouth, then sud­denly dis­ap­pears,” said chef Francis Mall­mann. “Then the beauty of the flesh of the fruit or meat ap­pears.”

His open-fire cook­ing in­spired chefs world­wide when Mall­mann was fea­tured on the pre­miere sea­son of the Net­flix se­ries Chef’s Ta­ble.

“Imag­ine your­self go­ing to a party,” Mall­mann said. “You dress very el­e­gantly and, as you take a last glance in the mir­ror, you re­alise you are over­dressed.” The dif­fer­ence be­tween char and burn is “ex­actly the same type of thing. The line is so thin that you have to be very care­ful”.

Food sci­en­tists agree that the line be­tween char and burn is pretty fuzzy.

“The dif­fer­ence is in in­ten­sity, not in the type of process that is hap­pen­ing,” said Bruno Xavier, pro­cess­ing au­thor­ity at Cor­nell’s Food Ven­ture Cen­tre. He said that burn­ing is a com­bus­tion re­ac­tion that re­quires oxy­gen. But, chem­i­cally

Wash­ing­ton Post speaking, char is formed by heat­ing or­ganic mat­ter with­out the pres­ence of oxy­gen, in a process known as py­rol­y­sis. Meats, veg­eta­bles, even fruits can be charred (although med­i­cal ex­perts warn that charred meats can be linked to can­cer).

We don’t cook in a vacuum, so get­ting a de­cent char in the kitchen is about good heat man­age­ment even in the pres­ence of oxy­gen. Think about the cut sur­face of an onion sit­ting in a cast-iron skil­let, bathed in a steady heat trans­fer. A pan of car­rots in the oven roasts in a closed en­vi­ron­ment, with no air­flow. But an onion on a grill is sit­ting over open fire, feed­ing on oxy­gen and quick to burn.

“It’s a con­tin­uum, and ab­so­lutely a mat­ter of per­sonal taste,” said Xavier. “Get­ting it right is about tech­nique, pa­tience, and trial and er­ror.”

Grill masters ev­ery­where aim for a good crust on grilled food, but it’s harder to achieve char over char­coal. Even a pro like Mall­mann sweats ev­ery de­tail of cook­ing over open flame.

“When I am cook­ing out­doors, I sit on a chair un­der a tree and look at the fire. Not for a sec­ond do I stop look­ing at what hap­pens.

“You have to be very aware and alive and awake,” Mall­mann said. “It’s a frag­ile thing, a feminine and beau­ti­ful thing to cook with fire. You need a lot of intuition.”

For­tu­nately, we have stove­tops and ovens, which are eas­ier to man­age. Char­ring any­where, how­ever, still re­quires lots of prac­tice.

“It took us six months just to fig­ure out how to use the wood-fired oven,” said Frank Pinello, owner of Best Pizza in Brook­lyn. Best Pizza serves Neapoli­tan-style pizza, of which char is an im­por­tant el­e­ment.

“Early on, we did a lot of test­ing,” Pinello said. “We came up with a crust that has nice char marks, but spo­radic. The bot­tom is evenly cooked, no black marks, that’s what I like. If the oven deck is too hot, the bot­tom will get black. That’s, to me, too much on the palate and stom­ach.” | Wash­ing­ton Post

Deb Lind­sey

Chef Jeremiah Langhorne preps food dur­ing the din­ner ser­vice at his res­tau­rant, The Dab­ney, in Wash­ing­ton. |

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