Photo: Simev (Shutterstock)
Bitter is good. Burnt ends, blackened catfish, crème brûlée, and the giant charred bubble on your pizza pie are just a few examples of how good it can be. The palate can taste five flavors—sweet, salty, bitter, savory, and umami—and the best dishes will work with several, if not all five, to create a harmonious experience for your tastebuds. You can do the same by deeply and aggressively browning your food (and maybe even burning it a bit).
Charring food has definitely been in style since mankind started cooking with fire, and notably since the Spanish word barbacoa started getting kicked around in print in the 1500s. This flavor is so highly sought after that there are endless tutorials and cooking show episodes on how to get perfect grill marks and the proper way to sear on the stovetop. You’re not just highlighting the single, flat flavor of carbon. These techniques can create hundreds of complex flavors depending on the chemical components of the food and how it was browned.
We owe this deep, roasted, balancing and sometimes bitter flavor to a couple things: the Maillard reaction, and caramelization. Those familiar will already know that the Maillard reaction is a type of non-enzymatic browning that occurs when you bake bread, toast a marshmallow, or roast coffee beans. On a more technical level, it’s a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that typically occurs when foods are heated between 280℉-330℉, resulting in mouthwatering new flavor compounds and lovely changes in color. Caramelization is simply the browning of sugars, caused by heating foods to even higher temperatures (with pure sucrose, this is around 338℉), resulting in polymers that all have deep, nutty flavors and that classic caramel brown hue. Give me one or give me both, these processes add visual appeal and bring the flavor. Take either “too far,” and that’s when things start to get a little smokey (which can be a good thing).
Char your food on the grill, or in the oven to bring in notes of bitterness, along with an alluring smokiness that can change any good dish into an amazing one. Roast a red bell pepper before chopping it into black bean soup. Char tomatillos to add a smoky depth of flavor to your salsa verde. Grill romaine to transform a simple salad into a side dish your friends still talk about. Making a strawberry rhubarb pie? Roast those strawberries and chopped rhubarb in the oven to caramelize the sugars and bring out new flavors before composing the filling. Use white chocolate in a new way by surpassing its melting point and deeply browning it to sprinkle over ice cream.
In addition to flavor, aggressively browning or burning your food has textural benefits. The captivating development in texture can range from dried and jerky-like to brain-rattlingly crunchy. There’s a unique sadness I feel when I see an under-browned grilled cheese sandwich, pale french toast, or pallid fruit pie. The hyper-contrast in texture is the big moment I look forward to when I know there’s a soft dough or gooey center hidden behind the crispy barrier.
Certainly, browning can be done to a fault, where the entire dish crosses over to “over-cooked,” or charring permeates deeply toward the center of the food. This is also when flavor becomes unbalanced, where bitter is no longer providing contrast but dominating. And while that’s no good, usually this occurs from absentmindedness, or walking away while you’re cooking. Be sure to monitor your food’s progress when cooking with aggressive heat to ensure the best flavor results. (And safety too, I suppose.)
With a watchful eye and a mindful palate, feel emboldened to sear your meats on a higher heat, burn the onions in your onion dip, leave the pizza in the oven for that extra crunchy crust, or grill a peach and caramelize those sugars for unbelievable contrast! The next time someone says you “burned” something, don’t get mad. Pity their amateur palate. Without browning, all we have are flaccid french fries and bland breads. I’ll take the French toast that’s deeply browned with a whisper of bitter, over-caramelized sugars, and the crispy-exterior-meets-custardy-center over the gummy, basic one any day.