Charred, Browned, Blackened: The Dark Lure of Burned Food

Chefs are pushing the envelope, inspired by traditions from around the world. With a little daring, home cooks can, too.

Comments: 108

  1. In case you missed the memo from the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom - acrylamide, a chemical produced naturally as a result of cooking starchy foods at high temperatures, has been found to cause cancer in animals. Experts are warning off serving toast that isn't "golden" in color or potatoes that are too crispy. So I couldn't believe it when this article popped up today.

  2. Cancer Research UK said the link to humans was not proved and didn't understand why the FSA released the memo. And below is a quote from the BBC concerning the release of the memo.

    'David Spiegelhalter, professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, said he was not sure the advice was appropriate.
    He said: "Even adults with the highest consumption of acrylamide would need to consume 160 times as much to reach a level that might cause increased tumours in mice.
    "The FSA provide no estimate of the current harm caused by acrylamide, nor the benefit from any reduction due to people following their advice."'

    One should always take these advisory notices with a grain of salt. I was in Trader Joe's yesterday buying shelf stable cream when a woman told me that the FDA said carrageenan causes cancer. This statement was completely untrue (the FDA never said this) but clearly she picked it up from some agency's notice and was smug in her certainty.

    Moderation in most things except nicotine and opioids never.

  3. Did you read the article? 11th paragraph:

    "Britain’s Food Standards Agency warned this week against browning starchy foods like bread and potatoes because cooking them at high temperatures produces acrylamide, ..."

  4. Isn't it reasonable to assume that humans, who have been subsisting on charred meat for hundreds of thousands of years, have developed some mechanisms for dealing with acrylamide, whereas rats and mice have yet to catch up?

  5. Dear Food Editor
    The food section is my favorite section of the week, but I have a bone to pick. When you write an article about a great technique, please include the recipe for the featured dish. In this case, I am referring to the mole recipe. To offer such a tantalizing idea without direction on how to proceed is plain torture. Further, it will only serve to send me in search of a recipe on a competing website.

  6. [[Further, it will only serve to send me in search of a recipe on a competing website.]]

    Even if The Times offered a recipe, mole is one of those foods that you would inevitably investigate further. What they are introducing here is the idea of blackening ingredients beyond what simpler recipes might recommend.

    Personally, I would start with a simpler blackened tomatillo salsa (google it)...same concept with fewer ingredients.

    Make the tomatillo salsa then use it to top off shrimp, chicken or flank steak tacos.

  7. Interesting that you would publish a stern warning about the dangers of burnt food in the Health Section one day, and the next day publish a story on the front page of the Food Section celebrating the unique flavors of burnt food.

  8. Yes, well, life is complicated.

  9. I hate to be the one to tell you, but they have recipes with sugar added in here, but the opinion page is in love with this Taubes guy (my guess: he was someone's college roommate or something).

  10. Tobacco is the quintessential burnt stuff that humans always had an acquired taste for.

    Whether it is a "staple" or "food", whether it is "cooking" or "burning", whether it is "consumed" or "ingested" or "inhaled", whether is is a basic taste like umami or starchiness are all up for debate, but what is undebatable is that it goes through one's mouth, activates one's taste buds and saliver and sense of smell, much as cooked food does.

    Now, whether burning, be it food or tobacco, is good or bad for one's health is definitely worth debating.

  11. I am surprised the Indian tandoor (clay oven) was not mentioned. Usage of this method to purposefully produce a char in many cooked/baked foods (tandoori chicken, naans, assorted kebabs) to produce unique flavors additional to the spices of course has been quite popular in the west and in the NYc area for many years. There are even tandoors manufactured for in-home use.

  12. Some chefs may understand darkened food, close to the point of charred, but not quite. There are others who read about the newest fad (and that's what it is) for producing umami flavors and experiment with their traditional dishes. Recently, I ate at a good restaurant and sampled a dinner companion's roasted cauliflower. Burned. Basically inedible. Why take a vegetable that has subtle flavors and turn it into something you'd eat if your campfire marshmallows burned too long? Mole, fine, because it has a few centuries of traditional charring and creates traditional flavors. But cauliflower? Acrylamide is not the only reason to avoid char. If you enjoy wine with your dinner, I have had no varietal that marries well with blackened food.

  13. very bad idea it seems to me: carcinogenic chemicals
    Yes (eventually). Chargrilled meats, contain (amongst other things) the polycyclic hydrocarbon, benzo(a)pyrene. The accumulation and metabolism of benzo(a)pyrene into the carcinogen benzo(a)pyrene diolepoxide (BPDE) is associated with certain cancers. BPDE is able to bind to the minor groove of DNA and is known as a bulky adduct as it is able to distort the DNA helix. Different isoforms of BPDE are produced in different quantities. Unfortunately the most abundant isoform is also the most resistant to the cells natural DNA repair mechanism known as nucleotide excision repair. Gradual accumulation of adducts means that there is an increased risk of incorporating "wrong" information into aspects of the cell which can eventually cause cancer. A good example of this is Linxian in China. Generations of families from this isolated mountain village have died from oesophogeal cancer due to the lack of ventilation in their houses. This meant that the soot from their central fires covered their foods and was ingested. It was so severe, they even had statues dedicated to the throat gods due to the frequency of oesophogeal cancer occurrence. If I recall correctly the amount of BPDE these individuals were exposed to was the equivalent of a person who smoked 20 packets of cigarettes a day.
    TLDR: yes. Certain products in Chargrilled meats and cigarette smoke can cause cancer by binding to the DNA and physically changing its shape.

  14. While this sounds interesting some points in your relaying the case of Linxian seem strange to me. There is indeed a high rate of esophogeal and related cancers there but I haven't seen any studies or literature attributing this to lack of ventilation > soot-covered foods > physical changes in DNA. The studies and focus on prevention that I've seen appear to focus on improving nutrition as the primary factor.

    I am also curious about the statues dedicated to the "throat gods". This is an area of Chinese folklore with which I am unfamiliar and am interested to hear more about this. Do you have any leads?

  15. I’ve burned many dishes before,
    From broccoli spears to wild boar.
    But I’m not afraid
    To make a roulade
    Of ashes and soot anymore!

  16. Good that we have the opinion of an expert on "strategically charred food" and now i know it "draws you in more" and "whets your appetite."Kind of like a potato chip i guess.

  17. I have a gumbo recipe that with instructions to cook the roux until blue smoke rises, but it is not burned.

    That gumbo tastes like it could roof the world of evil

  18. Blackening the seeds from your chiles is essential to a rich, smoky mole. Your nuts must be a deep brown. Frying golden raisins to brown is a good move. And an absolutely torched tortilla adds good smoke to your mole.

  19. Burnt food. How trendy. Spare me.

    I know how to char stuff in the prep phase, but I would never present burnt junk to my guests.

  20. Aren't these chefs breaking the law? Isn't burnt/charred food carcinogenic? It's strange that the Times will on one hand promote this, then on the other, report the dangerous health effects in their "Health" section?

  21. The story notes the health concerns.

  22. Actually the article states a minor, possible health issue - acrylamide - but it does not mention better-established and serious health issue - dietary advanced glycation end products. For more info, please see my previous comment, above.

  23. Breaking the law? Did Trump announce new food prep laws? Other than health code violations, which are not "breaking the law" (inasmuch as you go to jail or get sued), but rather liable to result in having your restaurant shut down, there are no restaurant food prep laws. Black pepper is a possible carcinogen. Alcohol is too. Sugar is evil. Tuna is full of mercury. Peanuts can result in anaphylactic shock and lead to death. But so far there are no "laws" against serving those items.

  24. When my mother makes cookies, I always seek out the few that for whatever reason, got burnt.
    I wonder if that's risky behaviour?

  25. Now this is "a thing"? I was into it eons ago. It requires no daring whatsoever - just a good book and a tendency to forget to set the timer.

  26. I started cooking for our family of 6 when I was 11 when my mom went to work full time and after burning too many soups I was forbidden to read or do homework while making dinner. heh

  27. I've always liked charred food and I love the article!

  28. At home we burn the bottom of the rice pot to get a nice crusty "pegado" (stuck in Spanish). The same can be done with Paella, Rice & Beans and other one pot rice treats. While you are att it throw a steak straight on the fireplace ambers until it reaches your desired cooking temperature. Yummy.

  29. Oh, yes. Pegado (pronounced pegao in Puerto Rico) is the nice treat you get at the bottom of the paella pan (but you have to work to get it unstuck). I seem to recall that Persian wedding rice has this extra too.

  30. One of the most famous chef's in South America is Francis Mallmann who is known for his 7 different types of cooking with fire. He has restaurants in Argentina, Uruguay, and Miami and has published a number of books. I had the honor to dine in his restaurant in Garzon, Uruguay. Such a magical place!

  31. Ahhhhhh!!!!!!!! I wondered if there was an evil plot to burn food, a generation of sloppy cooks, or if it was simply a reflection that Americans don't know how to grill and think burnt is normal. There is NO justification for serving black food. Perios. In Spain, where I have been learn gin to cook for 30 years yes, we burn peppers over an open flame one the stove. However, we then put them in a paper bag, shake them to remove the black skin and leave nicely roasted (not burnt) peppers to accompany a fired egg in olive oil...

  32. Did you read the article, friend? It references foods from all over the world that are charred as part of the cooking process. Yet you deduce that "American don't know how to grill." Maybe you should read it again?

  33. I've been lucky to have eaten many of the examples in many of those countries. The key is as quoted in the article "to the darkest possible shade of brown. Just before they go black,”

    It is true that you cant make satay or a chapati without a bitt of black, but that is like the use of garlic. Just a touch.
    Chefs now burn food so often that I cant request "grilled" food anymore because it will actually show up on the plate blackened. Hopefully this trend will slowly "burn out"

  34. Roasted peppers? Seriously? As if that is some Spanish secret?

  35. Dear Food Editor,
    It the last two decades, it has become clear that burned, crisped or even gently browned foods are an important contributor to many chronic diseases. Frying, browning and baking produce delicious food - but also produce chemicals known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which contribute to oxidate stress and inflammation. Dietary AGEs (d-AGES) appear to contribute to many of our major health ills, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimers.

    Many people avoid gluten and GMOs though the evidence for their harm to human health (except for people with celiac disease) has not been established. Paradoxically, though evidence for danger of d-AGEs mounts with each published study, the public knows little about it. We might avoid much suffering if we knew and acted on this information.

  36. We could have avoided a lot more suffering if we had just ignored the bulk of the nutritional 'science'. Peer review has proven to be of no use when the peers are incompetent.

  37. I am a fan of home smoked meats, particularly pork. Where I grew up in S IN, lots of the older farms had smoke houses where bacon, ham and sausage links were cold wood smoked as a means of preserving the pork until the next butchering season. I helped neighbors butcher their hogs and what a busy day that was. You started at 4 AM and continued until early evening.

    Today I have a steel offset wood smoker that weighs over 600 pounds and in about 10 hours, pork shoulder/Boston Butts and hams can be smoked. The hams and Boston Butts are raw because when you get them smoked - a lot of added salt is part of the process.

    The only cut of beef that is suitable for smoking - has enough fat - is beef brisket and it is good but does not approach pork IMHO.

    Some people advocate using certain woods such as apple and mesquite but those woods are difficult to source and pricey. We have huge stands of oak in this area and this wood works well. There are dry rubs and I make my own which do not contain salt.

    Every year in Hatch, NM. they have a festival featuring smoked chili peppers and that is on my to do list.

  38. > Every year in Hatch, NM. they have a festival featuring smoked chili peppers and that is on my to do list.

    Best to do it in Hatch, of course, but the Hatch Chilefest has caught on in a lot of places. It's standard to see cylindrical expanded-metal roasters rotating and roaring in front of stores all around the Southwest, and I think I saw one at a Wegman's in Northern Virginia a couple of years ago.

  39. You just made a lot of home cook/chefs heroes. 'Honey, it's not burnt; it's Artisan Cuisine!'

  40. You nailed it!

  41. One of the best ways to cook fish on an open fire or a grill is to keep the scales on. They then burn to a char while keeping the skin and the flesh intact and moist. In the Philippines, a fish charred in this way can be added to a stew of vegetables and fermented fish/shrimp or a more soupy stew with guavas, water cabbage (kangkong), hot long peppers and yams.

  42. Lets not forget the French roux, expertly browned for Cajun gumbos by generations in Louisiana !

  43. The key is "browned"not burnt. You don't "Char, or Blacken" it.

  44. "Britain’s Food Standards Agency warned this week against browning starchy foods like bread and potatoes because cooking them at high temperatures produces acrylamide, which has been linked to cancer in animals. Researchers are still studying whether the chemical affects health in humans. The Food and Drug Administration has said it is not clear if the low levels of acrylamide found in food may be a health risk, especially if eaten in small amounts."

    There have been earlier warnings, too, about cooking over charcoal, broiling, and the heating and/or cooking of foods over "safe" temperatures.

  45. Steve is correct. There are medical, particularly cancer concerns, about burnt foods, as reported two days ago on the BBC.

  46. You're going to die of something. I say fire up the grill.

  47. Read the article, paragraph eleven. Next time out please refrain from repeating the same information that the article presented .

  48. deliciously burnt

  49. I sent this article to my sister who reminded me that our mothers' choice was also the broiler, and burning was the operative word. Who knew she was ahead of her time?

  50. Please be aware that dark browning/burning of starchy vegetables and bread results in the formation of acrylamides, which is a carcinogen. UK's Food Safety Agency (FSA) warns against this practice in very strong terms, advises to never go beyond golden brown. This is a dangerous recipe for cancer.

  51. Geez, did you even bother to read the article? Try reading paragraph eleven.

  52. Agree with Molly, there are 5 comments that show that people are not even reading the article... react! post! now!

  53. Oh, they read but they don't comprehend.

    Don't need to understand the subject to be a lecturing nanny.

  54. "so diligently carbonized that your average toast prude might be tempted to carry it to the sink and scrape it clean with a knife. (Resist, please.)"

    LOL! I will never scrape toast again without thinking of myself as an "average toast prude"!

  55. I think the article should read "singed" i.e. slightly burned on an edge or some detail. not through. Anybody tasted any burned-through caramel lately?

  56. "Britain’s Food Standards Agency warned this week against browning starchy foods like bread"

    Toast, that would be? It never ends.

  57. Yes, that would be toast. I clicked on the link, looked at the recommended level of "toasting" and concluded that my days are numbered.

  58. The search for better tasting food is commendable--but it should not be done by advocating unhealthy cooking techniques. Charred, burned food contains many well documented carcinogens.

  59. Where are the well-documented people with cancer from eating charred food?

  60. Doesn't matter. They read it; it's true. Case closed.

  61. Some people will believe anything. Being able to convince people that burned food taste good is why we have Trump for president. Charred, roasted, fine. Burned is burned and its poor cooking technique. Another ridiculous trend.

  62. People have charred the ingredients in mole for a thousand years, perhaps. This is not "a trend."

  63. What is next? Spoiled meat?

  64. Yes. It's called "aged".

  65. I always burn my bolognese. It caramelizes the tomato and onion giving the sauce much greater depth.

  66. I would have to admit this is true. Best tasting ragu is when the ragu is brown at the bottom of the pan.

  67. For all of us non- New Yorkers who may never get to taste Ralston Williams' incredibly delicious sounding mole, could you please provide a recipe?
    Many thanks!

  68. As far as the health concerns, people have been burning food since the beginning of time, it's probably the most healthy way to get cancer.

  69. If cooking something makes it good, then cooking it more must make it better.

  70. Burn your food? Certainly not by choice! And never mind the "acrylamide" that the Brits are getting worked up about.

  71. Two thumbs up for burned foods—carmelized onions + mushrooms, roast beef charred sweet on the outside...

  72. I wouldn't call carmelized onions burnt.

  73. Could you post the recipe for octopus with burned almond mole? It looks amazing, but the chances I'm going to get to try in NYC are low.

  74. Seems I just read something in the NYT about the health dangers of burned food.

  75. Corn tortillas toasted crispy and black on the open flame of a gas burner with refried beans made with lard, queso fresca and pico de gallo and a fresh poblano chili roasted until the skin is black on the gas flame were my go to breakfast when I was a kid. That is not a breakfast for the health conscious, but it is delicious. Just wipe most of the blackened skin off the roasted poblano and eat it like a vegetable. The tortillas sometimes catch on fire but that just makes them extra crispy and smokey. Shut off the smoke detector first.

  76. Is this a happy coincidence or did some clever editor at the Times realize that this is Burns Night, dedicated to the celebration at festive dinners, by Scots and other fans worldwide, of the birthday of the poet Robert Burns?

  77. no, the editor was probably thinking of trump & well, you supply the rest.

  78. Burned food has nothing but carcinogens to recommend it.

  79. How disappointing that the recipe is for burned toast soup and not the charred mole.

  80. Again, the article doesn't really make this clear, but mole is *always* charred.

    Also labor-intensive to make. An easier (and delicious) dish featuring charred ingredients is rajas, which features poblanos and charred onions. Great on tortillas.

  81. Recently I discovered they make Cheez-its crackers extra toasty or twice baked. Those overdone morsels were always my favorite when I was a kid. That slightly burned aftertaste was delicious. Although I am not recommending anyone to consume Cheez-its.

  82. They are actually pretty tasty.

  83. Glad to see the times venturing into controversial culinary realms. I think the word here is moderation, as the author notes. There are many health hazards in our food, our living and working environment, and our lifestyle regimes. Moreover, the science isn't entirely settled in some areas. As such risk management is the name of the game. Please don't adhere to the advice of the killjoys on here, as there are many globally cuisines that use a good char to accent bread products, meats, veggies, salsas, and other delights. The world would be a very dull place if we only ate steamed broccoli and brown rice. Keep it coming.

  84. Charred food contains cancer causing agents. We are supposed to remove the burnt skin on vegetables before eating them. I would never eat anything that resembles what is in this picture.

  85. My Uncle, who I mention above and who has been eating burnt food since the 70s, is in his 80s now and still eating burnt food. If you got cancer in your family, yea, don't smoke and don't eat carcinogenic foods. But don't believe everything you read about what kills and you what doesn't - we're here, aren't we? Our ancestors were doing something right. :)

  86. Virtually all food contains cancer causing agents; 'the dose makes the poison.'

  87. Welcome to planet trade-offs: delicious vs. healthy.

  88. With so many incredibly delicious foods and ways to prepare them, it's not necessary to trade delicious for healthy. Burned, oily, yuck.

  89. But I like avocado toast!

  90. There will always be silly trends in food preparation and in health fads. People will tire of this particular nonsense when they admit that burnt food tastes, well, burnt. Not exactly a flavor enhancer no matter how glowingly the reviewer describes these culinary disasters.
    I had the unfortunate experience of going to a new Peruvian restaurant this week. Our hosts kept remarking on the unique flavors. My wife and I agreed: it's burnt.

  91. Burning ingredients to make mole is not a trend. It's how it's made, traditionally.

  92. Did you actually read the article? As it clearly states. these are traditional cooking techniques, not a new fad.

  93. It's strange that the serious health dangers associated with the good taste of burned food, which has the same attraction as cigarettes, is buried so deep in this article when it should be the lede. The reporter should have been asking why anyone would even consider intentionally preparing food in this way rather than trying to find ways to get the same type of pleasure in some way that is unquestionably safe.

  94. If mole is to be the next discovered thing in Manhattan, I'd suggest a trip to Oaxaca for a little education before dropping a bay laurel on the burnt offerings of this article.

    Besides, there are expert millions in the gut belt who burn more meat and veggies every summer than a Nero fire sale who can provide better expertise.

    Ah, nothing like the smell of char to trigger a column, fresh out of ideas or taste.

  95. I would say this is fairly irresponsible journalism from the New York Times. I can't imagine that burnt anything could be good for you.

  96. InaGarten has a great roast chicken recipe in which a whole chicken is cookded at high temperature (500F) on a bed of bread slices. The bread winds up charred with a distinct flavor of the chicken drippings. Bread chunks go on an arugala base to m,ake a salad served with the chicken. Try it you'll like the charred flavor.

  97. Any fool can burn food. But it takes a real cook to brown it to golden, not charred, perfection.

  98. How can anyone write a book on burned food and not mentioned Francis Mallmann, who is the pioneer at re-introducing this concept to the fine dining world!

  99. New Haven's world-famous pizza from Frank Pepe would be nothing without the char. It's cooked in very hot charcoal ovens, and the crust is always burnt in several spots.

  100. Burning rocks.

    My uncle, when i was a kid eating bar-b-cue at his house, would throw a potato right into the fire and eat it only after it turned black.

    If I order a bagel, i judge the effectiveness of the place by saying "Burn it!"

    If the staff is timid, the bagel comes back brown. If they are hip, it's burnt.

  101. Acrylamide is classified as an extremely hazardous substance !!!

  102. Looks delicious.

  103. Sorry, but I don't eat burned brownies, or anything else.

  104. Despite my doubts about the health of charred food, I will say the best butter for making Ethiopian food is delivered from farms to the local market inside gourds that have been cleaned out using hot coals from a wood fire. The butter picks up a smoky charred taste from the gourd. When used in a dish with strong flavors, like doro wet, it adds a hint of that wood fire, a taste from your mountain home.

  105. It would be useful if the journalists of the foodsection would read the healthsection of the NYT!

    There is so much convincing scientific evidence that loads of your recipes are making people sick! Who would eat these cancer giving recipes?! Are you sick?

    Please watch and read "How Not To Die" by Dr. Michael Greger. Around 90% of diseases can be prevented by eating well (and excercising). You make people sick with these recipes. Better eat some human brain!