Jeremiah Langhorne bends over a small coal bed in front of the log-stacked firebox in the kitchen at the Dabney restaurant.
As he fans them, the coals redden and shoot out sparks. The 1,000-degree heat from deep within the firebox lashes out with angry blasts, but the chef’s glasses don’t fog, and his bearded face betrays only a light misting of sweat. He reaches in, barehanded, to spread some baby vegetables in a wire basket set on the coals, and keeps fanning.
“They’ll stick at first, so we’ll leave them alone for now,” he says. “Wait for when they start to glisten.”
What Langhorne is going for is a good char. Char, often confused with burn, is the dark edge on a cube of roasted butternut squash, that deep brown bubble on your pizza crust and the dark crosshatch marks on your perfectly grilled steak. Char is a trending flavor enhancer at restaurants and in processed foods, but home cooks often end up burning foods instead.
“A caramelized, paper-thin char layer gives you this smoke and wood flavor in the mouth, then suddenly disappears. Then the beauty of the flesh of the fruit or meat appears,” explains chef Francis Mallmann. His open-fire cooking inspired chefs worldwide when Mallmann was featured on the premiere season of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.”
“Imagine yourself going to a party,” Mallmann says. “You dress very elegantly, and as you take a last glance in the mirror, you realize you are overdressed.” The difference between char and burn is “exactly the same type of thing. The line is so, so, so thin that you have to be very careful.”
Food scientists agree that the line between char and burn is pretty fuzzy.
“The difference is in intensity, not in the type of process that is happening,” says Bruno Xavier, processing authority at Cornell’s Food Venture Center. Xavier explains that burning is a combustion reaction that requires oxygen. But, chemically speaking, char is formed by heating organic matter without the presence of oxygen, in a process known as pyrolysis. Meats, vegetables, even fruits can be charred (although medical experts warn that charred meats can be linked to cancer).
We don’t cook in a vacuum, so getting a decent char in the kitchen is about good heat management even in the presence of oxygen. Think about the cut surface of an onion sitting in a cast-iron skillet, bathed in a steady heat transfer. A pan of carrots in the oven roasts in a closed environment, with no airflow. But an onion on a grill is sitting over open fire, feeding on oxygen, and quick to burn.
“It’s a continuum, and absolutely a matter of personal taste,” says Xavier. “Getting it right is about technique, patience, and trial and error.”
Grillmasters everywhere aim for a good crust on grilled food, but it’s actually harder to achieve char over charcoal. Even a pro like Mallmann sweats every detail of cooking over open flame.
“When I am cooking outdoors, I sit on a chair under a tree and look at the fire. Not for a second do I stop looking at what happens. You have to be very aware and alive and awake,” Mallmann says. “It’s a fragile thing, a feminine and beautiful thing to cook with fire. You need a lot of intuition.”
Fortunately, we have stove-tops and ovens, which are easier to manage. Charring anywhere, however, still requires lots of practice.
“It took us six months just to figure out how to use the wood-fired oven,” says Frank Pinello, owner of Best Pizza in Brooklyn. Best Pizza serves Neapolitan-style pizza, of which char is an important element.
“Early on, we did a lot of testing,” Pinello says. “We came up with a crust that has nice char marks, but sporadic. The bottom is evenly cooked, no black marks, that’s what I like. If the oven deck is too hot, the bottom will get black. That’s, to me, too much on the palate and stomach.”
Here are pro tips for exploring the technique and figuring out where your own taste lies on the char-burn spectrum:
Don’t flame out. A stove-top or oven is a more stable environment than open flame for practicing with char. If you try fire, wait for the wood to burn into glowing coals. Then pull the coals to the side and cook directly over them. Only use coals that are fully red: Coals with black sections aren’t ready yet; they’re likely to flame up.
Keep it dry. Although you can toss the food in a little oil, chefs recommend keeping the cooking surface dry. A dry surface can reach a higher temperature without smoking or burning a cooking oil. Oil on the surface of the food will quickly bond and cook along with the hot food, rather than smoking with the skillet or griddle. Chefs say cast iron is the best surface for getting the high heat you need for charring.
Don’t move the food around. Recipes have conditioned us to think that food needs to be cooked for an even time on each side, but this isn’t true for developing char. Proper technique means leaving the food longer on the first side, letting it release its natural juices and develop a tasty crust. Resist the temptation to shake the pan or turn the food before it’s ready.
On “Chef’s Table,” Mallmann talks about cooking a steak for nine minutes: six on the first side to give it time to release, then three once you turn it.
Wait for the sweat. So, when is that food ready to flip? Start checking it when it starts “sweating.” As vegetables cook, they release their natural moisture. That moisture creates a barrier between the food and the cooking surface. The food will then release easily. If you find yourself prying food up with a spatula, it’s not ready yet.
Stay focused. Food can go from charred to burned in a heartbeat, so don’t get distracted. Langhorne focuses fiercely on his coals, fanning, poking, adjusting. Even when he stands back to give the vegetables a rest, he stops mid-sentence the moment they need turning. “This is technique-related.” he says. “You definitely have to practice with it.”
In front of the Dabney’s massive soapstone hearth, Langhorne piles the charred vegetables over a scoop of farro salad to create one of the restaurant’s signature small plates. The bite-size pieces of carrot, fennel, beans, peppers, okra and turnip have the occasional dark patch or browned edge, but overall they look glistening and tender.
A bite of baby bok choy showcases Langhorne’s mastery of the technique. The vegetable still has an al dente heart, but the skin is soft and melting, with a deep, umami-rich infusion. It’s only faintly, if at all, smoky. It’s an ancient, earthy flavor that you desperately want more of. The dish disappears quickly.
“Right?” Langhorne nods enthusiastically. “That’s char.”
Hise is a Richmond-based writer who covers food and small business.
You can also char the fruit over the direct heat of a hot grill for a few minutes, then move the fruit to the indirect-heat side of the grill and cook, covered, for about 10 minutes.
MAKE AHEAD: The infused bay cream can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days in advance.
Adapted from Trevor Knotts, corporate chef of the Richmond Restaurant Group.
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 bay leaf
2 pounds assorted stone fruits (nectarine, plum, peach), washed, halved and pitted
Flaky sea salt, for garnish (optional)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
Combine the cream, sugar and bay leaf over medium heat; as soon as the mixture starts to bubble at the edges, remove from heat. Cool to room temperature, then discard the bay leaf.
Wash the fruit, cut in half and remove the pits. Do not peel.
Heat a dry cast-iron skillet or grill pan on high heat. Place the halved fruit, cut sides down, on the hot surface. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until you see the fruit begin to release moisture. Lift carefully to check the char level — it should be dark brown, not black. Remove each piece as soon as it is done.
Meanwhile, pour the bay-infused cream into a mixing bowl; whisk just long enough to form soft peaks.
Arrange the fruit on a plate, cut sides up. Sprinkle fruit with a pinch of the flaky salt, if using, and drizzle with a small amount of oil. Add generous dollops of the softly whipped cream. Serve warm.
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