Getting that char just right
It’s a trending flavour enhancer at restaurants that demands a lot of technique
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
Chef Jeremiah Langhorne preps food during the dinner service at his restaurant, The Dabney, in Washington. |