Burn Your Dinner. On Purpose.

Is charring your dinner to a crisp all that bad? We talked to four pros who explained why, sometimes, burning your food can be a very good thing.
Photo of the ingredients for burned chicken stock on a sheet pan.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Anna Stockwell

First rule of cooking: Don't burn the food.

Second rule of cooking: Maybe, actually, sometimes burn the food—on purpose.

That second rule isn't just a dictum of the hundreds of people who love burnt popcorn and blackened toast. It's a rule that plenty of professional chefs have implemented in their own kitchens. And in case you think this is some new fad, destined to go away by the time you're no longer forced to cook three square meals every single day for you and all of your quarantine buddies, think again.

Burning foods on purpose is nothing new. In classic French cuisine, stocks are often started by cutting an onion in half and then searing the exposed flesh until the surface is totally black. The blackened onion then goes into the pot with roasted animal bones and other aromatics to simmer away. When I was in culinary school, we learned that this was a key component of a certain type of dark stock: the blackened onion not only adds flavor, imparting a subtle bitterness that offsets the sweet taste of carrots, tomato paste, and whatever else might be in the stock. It also lends a rich color, which makes the stock look more appealing.

In his new cookbook, The Outdoor Kitchen, Hartwood chef Eric Werner takes that idea one step further with his recipe for Chicken Stock on the Grill. In this recipe, whole pieces of chicken are charred over an open fire alongside onions, carrots, and celery until each element is blackened all over.

"Incorporating some char into the the stock brings a richer, smokier flavor," says Werner. It gives the broth a fuller, rounder flavor and you "can smell the wood-fired chicken" as you sip the finished stock. For even bolder char flavor, he likes to grill the flesh side of a halved lemon or lime until those telltale black lines develop, and squeeze the smoky-tart juice into the broth right before sipping it from a mug.

Those same lemons play well with a host of other foods: Werner likes to brush halved lemons with honey that's been thinned out with water, char them, and then squeeze the juice over "grilled fish or vegetables to add a smoky sweet-plus-sour finish." He makes a smoky vodka lemonade with charred citrus and fire-kissed sprigs of thyme, or goes for a simpler cocktail of smoky mezcal and charred lemon juice, shaken with a pinch of salt until well chilled.

A charred lemon, a glug of vodka, a burned sprig of thyme: total smoke show.

Photo by Gentl & Hyers

But charring is about more than just adding bitterness and woodsy flavors. In fact, you don't even have to have a grill to enjoy the benefits of charring. "You can always char things in a cast-iron skillet," says Cortney Burns, whose forthcoming cookbook, Nourish Me Home, features recipes for a charred eggplant soup, charred lettuces served with herby tahini, and a sweet corn pudding that features ears of grilled corn where the charred bits of corn are flaked off and reserved as a garnish before puréeing the kernels to mix into the batter.

"You can also roast things at a very high heat," says Burns. Any way you go, "there's a lovely caramelization of flavor you can get with charring—of course there's the classic Maillard reaction, but that's just one example. The sugars and proteins get all of these kind of lovely umami flavors."

In the case of those corn cobs, Burns says charring both intensifies the natural sugars present in corn—by coaxing them to the surface and caramelizing them—and introduces subtle bitterness for balance.

In Beyond the North Wind, Darra Goldstein introduces another classic cooking technique that involves charring. This one comes from the Russian Orthodox Easter tradition of making a paste of rye bread and salt and baking it in a 500°F oven until it's a hard, blackened disc. After cooling, the disc is ground into a garnish known as black salt, which was traditionally sprinkled over hard-boiled eggs during the holiday.

Today, Goldstein likes to use it as a finishing salt for roasted or steamed vegetables, or to sprinkle over carpaccio, crudo, or smoked salmon. She also notes that it is particularly good with "all kinds of egg dishes."

Goldstein calls out a different finishing salt in Beyond the North Wind as her favorite, though. Instead of rye bread, it starts with oats, coriander, and dill seed as the base, but it's made in much the same way. She also writes that in some regions of Russia, people add chopped cabbage leaves to their black salt mixture. In others, cooks add "seaweed for iodine and flavor."

In Kris Yenbamroong's Night + Market, the chef offers yet another take on a charred flavor base. In his recipe for khao soi, a dish of curried noodles that hails from Burma and Northern Thailand, the aromatics for the curry paste (including sliced fresh turmeric, ginger, shallots, garlic, and dried chile) are stir-fried in a wok until blackened before being puréed. Yenbamroong writes that the paste is "earthy, smoky, fragrant, and surprisingly lacking in heat;" it's worlds different from the bright, fresh Thai green curry paste Epi contributor Max Falkowitz recently wrote about.

Burns is quick to note that she's "apprehensive" of using a lot of "super-burned ingredients because of their carcinogenic nature." But she adds that if you're "playing with smoke and fire and char in a thoughtful way," there is an opportunity to bring in "layers of bitterness" to a dish and "and give it a depth of flavor that it wouldn't necessarily have otherwise."