What does blackened food say to you? For most people—those whose eating life wasn’t informed by the Cajun wave of the ’80s and early ’90s—burnt-black food means a serious kitchen goof. Burnt toast, the bane of mornings, conjures the harsh sound of scraping and the unpleasant taste of ashes. Perhaps it’s mixed with orange juice or coffee. Either way, it’s a bad way to start your day.
Yet char, another word for burn, has long been part of the cook’s arsenal. After all, what is a steak without a pattern of heavy, burnt-black stripes from the grill? Chef Dave DiBari of The Cookery, though not a fan of heavy chars on meats (“it can make meat dry”), is a big proponent of blackened spots on the crostini at The Cookery. Char is also a prominent feature of the pizzas that he sells from his wood-fired pizza truck, DoughNation. Says DiBari, “The blackened parts of breads emit a smokiness and a bitterness, and this is a quality that kitchens have always used. Personally, I like the way the bitterness of the black spots counterpoints the fattiness of rich toppings, and we do a lot of that here.” Plus, DiBari says, “I think there’s something special about imperfection. To me, the black spots feel like home.”
Char also is employed in kitchens that have no interest in mimicking home cooking. At high-style elm restaurant in New Cannan, Connecticut, Chef Brian Lewis served veal that had been coated in the ash of several roasted-until-black vegetables. The same powdered ash was blended with cheese and oils to form a luxurious purée that accompanied the veal. Rather than being bitter, the sugars in the vegetables were accentuated by their blackness–and the purée was sweet. In Lewis’ ode to Don Draper of Mad Men, elm also serves the Lucky Strike Old Fashioned, a cherry-wood-infused cocktail served with a Lucky Strike “cigarette.” This is a cylinder of chili-spiked meringue that, by all appearances, yields a dusting of vegetable ash.
Char and whiskey are traditional bedfellows. The unique flavor of burnt wood has always been a part of American whiskey- making. In contrast to Scotch or Irish whiskeys, which are usually aged in barrels formerly used to age wine or other spirits, American bourbon is aged in newly charred oak barrels. This is just what it sounds like: The inside surfaces of newly made oak barrels are burnt until the interior is black and crackled. Then, the blackened barrels are filled with fresh distillate, which, in time, becomes golden, mellow bourbon.
Ralph Erenzo, distiller and partner in Tuthilltown Spirits of Gardiner, New York, explains the complex flavors that result from the charring process.
“American whiskey is more about the wood than Scotch or Irish whiskeys–and the charring is a way to make its flavor more pronounced. The char draws out the saps and sugars in the wood and literally caramelizes them, making them sweet. Basically, the raw whiskey is a solvent, so it penetrates the charred wood and takes on all those flavors. The charring lends both that amber color and all of those caramel flavors.” According to Erenzo, American whiskey’s flavor is characterized by its wood flavors, which are potentiated by the charring. Think of that as consolation the next time you burn your toast.