Playing with Fire

Put your palate on burn notice, the charevolution is here.

In the kitchen, you fear the burn. It’s the pitch-black mark of care- lessness, branding the cook’s pride with an “F” for fail. But today a new crop of chefs no longer avoid the burn, they invite it—skillfully scorching up meats, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and breads. These burn artists say charring not only adds textural nuances—think of biting into a perfectly blackened, crispy-edged, yet-gooey-in-the-center campfire marshmallow—it gives them power to mute certain flavors, while ratcheting up a desired bitterness, earthiness and the sweet caramelized quotient in a single ingredient, creating new dimensions for your taste buds.

Some chefs fire up to create a complex crust, like the deep-seared buffalo carpaccio at Mountain Standard in Vail, Colorado. Chef Andrew Zimmerman at Sepia in Chicago uses the technique to bring out the bitter flavors of vegetables, like in his charred eggplant purée. And at The Catbird Seat in Nashville, chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson practically incinerate kale to a crisp, grind it, and add it to the seasoning for their famed short ribs.

“It’s not just burning foods recklessly. There is a fine line between burnt and burned,” says Victor Albisu, chef of Washington D.C.’s newly opened Del Campo, who’s been experimenting on his family’s asada, or grill, since he was a kid growing up in Argentina. Albisu loves to char almost everything, from avocados to sweetbreads to mackerel and cheese. “Name it and I’ve tried to char it. But over the years, I’ve come to understand the different elevations of burned flavors, and you just have to take it to that point where you’re creating something new, but still honoring the ingredient. It truly is an art.”

The Pairing: Singe and Sip

“When it comes to pairing charred dishes, you want something to both complement the dish, and contrast it to some degree,” says Natalie Obeso, general manager and sommelier at Ox in Portland, Oregon. Spicy plates work well with a wine that has a hint of sweetness and spice, like Gewürztraminer. Charred seafood pairs best with sparkling rosé, while charred meats need a wine with a lot of body and complexity without being too tannic or dry, like a Priorat or a Tempranillo-based blend. Obeso also recommends slightly sweet whiskeys, like Hudson’s Baby Bourbon. “For charred summer veggies, like corn and artichokes, try a dry Riesling or Grüner Veltliner—bottles with a good, solid body, minerality and just enough acidity,” says Obeso.


Prepare to tame the flame with this charring cheat sheet from Chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia restaurant in Chicago.


A grill is your best bet, but if indoors, a cast iron skillet is a great substitute—just be sure to vent well; there will be smoke. Also, a sturdy pair of heat-proof tongs is a burn jockey’s best friend.


Before you burn that $100/pound Kobe tenderloin into a hockey puck, consider the chimichurri (opposite page), and far-cheaper seasonal produce. As your scorch skills grow,

try a fresh-dough pizza and meats. Not everything can be charred, though. Steer clear of chicken and rice.


Be sure to taste foods pre- and post-char to notice the slightly bitter earthiness and augmented sweetness.


Don’t sweat the sticking. When you char, most foods will come right off the pan or grill, so go light on the oil and fat, which will only add acridity and plumes of smoke.

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