Playing with Fire

Playing with Fire

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. 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.

Burning for You

Restaurants that char right.

Sepia, Chicago
The Order: The sausage-stuffed grilled calamari with charred eggplant purée.

Ox, Portland, Oregon
The Order: The coal-grilled ricotta and the charred spaghetti squash.

Manhattan Beach Post, Manhattan Beach, California 
The Order: The Southern Hospitality. Grilled peaches and charred white oak chips give this Bourbon-based summer punch a smoky campfire character.

Swift’s Attic, Austin, Texas
The Order: The panzanella salad with a charred queso fresco.

Bravas, Healdsburg, California
The Order: Anything with the house Romesco sauce, which has charred spring onions and leeks.

The Catbird Seat, Nashville
The Order: The short ribs with blackened-kale seasoning.

Del Campo, Washington, D.C.
The Order: Smoked Iberico pork chop with burnt garlic pearl vinaigrette.

The Recipe: Charred Onion Chimichurri

This easy-to-make spread from Del Campo adds South American flair when dolloped atop breads and grilled meats.

Slice 2 red onions into half-inch rounds; season with salt and pepper and drizzle very lightly with olive oil. Over high heat, char the onions on a grill or in a cast iron pan for 5–7 minutes per side, or until the onions are crisp and blackened. Meanwhile, combine in a bowl: 2 bunches of finely chopped parsley; 1 bunch of cilantro; 1 finely diced red bell pepper; and 2 cloves of minced garlic. Remove onions from heat and place on a cutting board. Switch between chopping the onions and drizzling ½ cup of balsamic or sherry vinegar on the onions until it turns into a jam-like paste. Add the paste to the bowl with thepepper, garlic and herbs, then stir in ½ cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons of dried oregano, and ½ cup of red wine vinegar.

Published on April 29, 2013
Topics: RecipesRestaurants