If you’ve seen a lot of food reality shows, there seems to be two major crimes when it comes to cooking—either something is raw or undercooked, or something is burnt and overcooked. If something’s burnt to a crisp, it’s generally recognized as so horrible that it’s inedible, and if you muster up enough courage to eat it anyway, the carcinogens from the charcoal are pretty bad for your system. But over the years, it’s become a cooking method that’s trickled down from experimental fine-dining kitchens to trendy casual restaurants everywhere.
Using ash as a flavor and ingredient doesn’t actually belong strictly to molecular gastronomy—in fact, it’s been around for ages such as to coat cheese rather in replacement of wax, adding a bonus hint of smoky flavor. Charcoal grills are used all over the world more than as a heating implement; the coals themselves lend a unique flavor to any dish. If you really love your good old-fashioned barbecue, from Southern briskets, to Korean galbi, to our own BBQ, you know that using an electric grill won’t have the same burnished effect as using an old-school charcoal one. The toasty, blackened bits of fatty brisket are where all the flavor is concentrated, or where the slightly sweet caramel has formed over meaty ribs. A stick of pork BBQ is best when constantly brushed over with that dark, reddish sauce we Filipinos love, and left a little longer over coals so that the inside is hot and juicy, and the outside has bits of crisped-up gelatinous fat.
This old, traditional technique has been amped-up over the past couple of years by chefs around the world, from Grant Achatz to René Redzepi, who’ve made vegetable ash incredibly in vogue. Redzepi has burnt leeks on Mind of A Chef, and San Francisco golden child Joshua Skenes of Saison has showed off onions buried directly in ashes so that they are almost molten and soft. It has become a part of menus across the globe, and even in our city, where its most ubiquitous iteration is in the form of leek ash. Black Sheep, covers their sumptuous chicken in it, 12/10 uses it to accompany brussels sprouts, and Mecha Uma has had some charred negs on their menu.
Charring of vegetables releases such a unique flavor, one can only attribute it to umami, really. It has a slight acidity and tones of bitterness that release sweet, salty, and savory notes in whatever it accompanies. Your Local’s chorizo sandwich needs the burnt onion in the jam in order to balance sweetness and richness. Charring corn adds depth to Hungry Hound’s relish, which is a bright accompaniment to its Old Bay crab croquetas, while 12/10’s charred eggplant makes an incredibly well-rounded, smoky base to their Korean Fried Chicken, similar to the Matsusaka beef in Mecha Uma, which adds a punchy ponzu emulsion to the dish. Charring meats, too, gets similar, layered results: Todd English Food Hall makes sure their octopus has dark edges, tenderizing the infamously tough cephalopod, and Linguini Fini’s hanger steak comes charred as well, and made more delicious by the addition of a caramelized onion aioli.
Bitter and smoky may not sound like the most appetizing flavors on the planet, but trust me, they can add a complexity that you might not have truly appreciated. We’re not telling you to burn your food to a crisp—we’re telling you that a little bit of it can be seriously good. Try over-roasting some luscious leeks and onions, blitzing them, then topping it over your meats. You might end up loving it.