Learn the difference between burning and charring. Plus, find out which foods are actually safe to blacken.

By Michelle Preli
March 26, 2020
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mushroom tacos with charred corn salsa
Credit: Chris Simpson

Release the flavor! Charring—a bit of science that produces robust flavors—is a chemical process that occurs when food is exposed to high heat, blackening just the surface. To char is to "slightly burn" the outside, leaving a residue of carbon. In this case, black around the edges is not a mistake but a purposeful technique to bring out the depth of flavors.

Charred Is Not the Same as Burned

There's a difference between charred and full-on burned. Charring the surface of food enhances flavor, burning throughout damages it. You might think you like burned food but actually it's more likely that you like charred food. Taste buds don't lie. Crossing the line from charred to burned, the food quickly enters inedible territory.

Char Vegetables on the Grill, Stovetop, or in the Oven

Many rich food cultures have always embraced techniques for charring—think charred chiles in Mexican cooking—and it's something that's easy for home cooks to try. Fruits and vegetables are great candidates for charring. For vegetables, charring can caramelize the sugars that super-charge taste, providing a contrast for taste buds to savor. In addition, charring vegetables over wood can add a smokey flavor that's a delightful compliment. The American Heart Association recommends, "Brushing with a healthy oil to prevent sticking or use a grill basket to keep them out of the line of fire." But charring is not just for the grill, the stovetop or oven are options as well.

Try Charring Fruit

It's best to char raw fruit just before peak ripeness. When a peach or plum is on the firmer side, it holds up better. This will insure you don't end up with a mushy mess. Even citrus such as lemons or grapefruits are great options to char because the heat tends to curtail bitterness and lessens the acidity as it caramelizes. Try grilling fruit for flame-kissed aka charred taste.

When Charring Could Be Dangerous

Charred fruits and vegetables are safe to eat because they don't contain the elements that can create potentially harmful carcinogens. According to the Dana Farber Institute, the concern around burned food comes from the natural chemical acrylamide, most commonly found in starches (think potato chips, French fries, and toast), and particularly from muscle meats. Indeed, the American Institute for Cancer Research publishes guidance on grilling that explains the types of compounds that have been linked to cancer in lab studies. "Charring and cooking meat, poultry and fish under high heat causes compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form." According to the National Cancer Institute, "In laboratory experiments, HCAs and PAHs have been found to cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer…However, the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies were very high—equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet." If you do grill meat on open flame, the National Cancer Institute suggests ways to lessen exposure: marinate or even pre-cook meat beforehand and minimize breathing in the smoke from cooking.

Since HCAs don't form when plant foods are grilled, feel free to load up the grill with your favorite fruits and vegetables or tofu.

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