Intentionally burn your vegetables to unlock more flavor.
Are you afraid of burning your food? I know I am. 🙋
But here’s the thing. We should be burning our food. People do it intentionally all the time. They just call it by another name: charring.
In my book, black equals burnt. And that’s what you want when you char vegetables. The trick is to not burn it too much. 😅
I love charring my vegetables. And by the end, I’m sure you’ll have a burning desire (😉) to do it too.
Well, burning (or charring if you prefer) intensifies flavor. It’s a lot of the same reason we brown vegetables. Heat creates reactions with sugars, amino acids, and proteins to create new flavor molecules and aromas. You end up with a depth of flavor you’ll never have when a vegetable is raw.
Okay, so why burn instead of brown it? Two main reasons in my book. ✌️
First off, smoky flavors in small doses are delicious. And you won’t get as much smoky flavor from browning. Part of the vegetable has to burn to make that happen.
Ironically, burning most vegetables also makes them less bitter. This is especially true for vegetables that are low in sugar and high in sulfur. Think broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.
Steaming makes vegetables tender yet crispy. It’s a wonderful way to cook. But the flavor is more one-noted.
Roasting on the other hand gives you a depth of flavor. But roasted vegetables are softer and a touch oily. You lose out on the crispness.
Cranking up the heat and burning part of your vegetable, does a little bit of both. How? Let’s talk about charring asparagus. Parts of the outside of the asparagus turn beautifully black. That gives you the depth of flavor.
But since you are cooking the asparagus hot and fast, you’re in a sense steaming it from the inside out. The asparagus doesn’t turn mushy. There isn’t enough time for it. You get this amazing depth of flavor with tender yet crispy asparagus. Pretty cool, right? 😎
Something sounds wrong about that sentence (☝️), right? 😆
Let’s start with the heat source. If there’s fire, you can char vegetables. Here are some methods:
Those methods work because they can get pretty darn hot. 🔥 And we need high heat if we want to char veggies.
But there’s more to consider than cranking the heat up to high.
The trick to developing a black crust while keeping vegetables crisp is to reduce the urge to move them.
Vegetables need time in direct contact with a heat source. Every time you flip, stir, or turn, the crust stops developing and things cool down. So give them enough time, undisturbed, to char.
We also only need to burn one or two sides of a vegetable to get the desired effect. In fact, we don’t want charred vegetables to be evenly cooked—remember we want charry bits and tender bits. It’s those differences that create contrast and make everything so darn delicious.
However, things can get a bit tricky here. So we don't want to burn the whole vegetable. But we also don’t want the inside of the veggie to be raw. So...
Thinner vegetables just need a quick sear to get that proper char.
If you can eat a vegetable raw, it typically falls in this camp. Think zucchini, fennel, and tomatoes, but also green beans, asparagus, and sliced broccoli.
I typically like to skillet char or grill these veggies. Thicker vegetables—like Brussel sprouts, eggplants, and cabbage—need a little extra love. Enter the two-step.
No, I don’t mean dancing with your vegetables. 🤠
Charring thick vegetables is like cooking thick cuts of meat. You want to cook the meat all the way through before completely burning the outside.
What’s a two-step cooking method? You simply cook the vegetable in two different ways.
If you’re grilling thick veggies, create a hot and cool side of your grill. Start by charring the vegetables on the hot side. Then transfer to the cool side to let them finish cooking through.
If you’re broiling them, start the vegetables close to the broiler until the tops start to turn black. Once they do, transfer them to a bottom rack and turn off the oven. The indirect heat will finish off the veggies.
If you’re searing them in a skillet, start with the lid on. My favorite way to cook Brussels sprouts is to start them cut side down in a cold pan. I then turn up the heat to medium-high and cover them. They’ll steam as the pan heats up. Then after about 10-minutes, I take off the lid and let them char for the next 10 or so. No flipping is necessary. 😊
Where I learned this: The New Rules cookbook by Milk Street, this video on Brussels sprouts by Dan Souza, and importantly Flavor by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage.