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And yet, there are those weirdos out there that loved burned food. We all know them. They're the human vacuums for neglected chocolate chip cookies; the scramblers for the dry, crisp edge of the brownie pan; the charred marshmallow and steak and vegetable enthusiasts.
Are these people simply freaks? To get some answers, I spoke to an official source who bravely agreed to go on record: my stepdad, Frank, who eagerly consumed all the cookies I burned in my high school years. “The burning adds depth to the flavor,” he said. “In the case of cookies, you don’t just have something that’s flatly, overwhelmingly sweet.” He explained that he likes that added note of bitterness, of char. “There’s also a textural element. I like when the bottom of the cookie is burned and extra crispy and the top is nice and soft.”
She microwaves popcorn well past the time when the last few kernels pop—she just lets it keep going until the kernels combust from within and melt into each other.
"I can’t understand it myself, but from what I’ve observed in her it’s a textural thing," Adina told me. "She wants the crispy edge piece of the brownies, and the mac and cheese, which I can relate to. Where she goes that I can’t is, she seems to crave the almost carbon-like flavor of burned food, when it’s turned from dark brown to black. She microwaves popcorn well past the time when the last few kernels pop—she just lets it keep going until the kernels combust from within and melt into each other. This incredibly acrid smell would fill the house growing up, and cause all of us a lot of suffering. One time my dad grabbed the microwaved popcorn bag and threw it outside into the snow."
In defense of our family members, burning food does enhance flavor. After all, the Maillard reaction is a coveted cooking phenomenon. As food browns and caramelizes, amino acids and sugars are rearranged, producing complex, savory flavors. This chemical reaction gives food a savory, umami, and—when it really gets black—bitter flavor.
Photo by ShutterstockUnlike cilantro or fennel, there isn't a concrete explanation of why people might have preferences for burnt flavor. But the Maillaird reaction is almost universally appealing, and, for some people, it remains appealing even in extremes.
Dr Paul Breslin of the Monell Center, a scientific institute dedicated to basic research on taste and smell, and Rutgers University broke it down for me. "Maillards are what makes cooked food taste like cooked food," he said. "When you smell a Cinnabon in a shopping mall, the reason it smells so good isn't the cinnamon. There could be a spice vendor with giant vats of cinnamon wafting into the air and people wouldn't flock to it like moths to a flame. It's the Maillards, the smell of the browning bun. Burning is part of that spectrum, part of the Maillard reaction."
When you smell a Cinnabon in a shopping mall, the reason it smells so good isn't the cinnamon. It's the Maillards.
Charring food takes the Maillard reaction to its furthest possible conclusion—the longer a food is cooked, the more pronounced and complex that caramelized flavor can become. "I do think that Maillards stop at a certain point in the burning process, and you get into a different kind of chemistry. We find the caramelization of sugar, slightly burnt sugar, very attractive but if you burn the sugar into blackened cinders, we don't like it. The chemistries of this are not at all simple." (However, of course it should also be noted that burning food produces the chemical acrylamide, which has been linked to cancer.)
Part of the taste for burned foods could be cultural. As a New York Times piece on the lure of burned food pointed out, the flavor profile is sought out in many cultures. In Vietnam, a burnt sugar sauce called nuoc mau is added to marinades and meats to achieve that perfect balance of savory, sweet, a little bit bitter, and even a little bit acrid. Caribbean and Mexican cultures also burn food to add savory depth—mole is an easy example of this. Adina had an interesting thought about cultural preferences for texture. “In America we’re a very crispy crunchy-obsessed country.” This obsession with burnt food might be a kind of overzealous preference some people develop that stems from the way we’re taught to like everything crisp. I get it, kind of. While I don't like my cookies burned at all (I want them perfectly crispy on the outside and soft in the middle without any blackening), I do understand the allure of a few stray pieces of melt-in-your mouth burned popcorn, and I love browned butter that's got lots of flecks of darkened milk solids.
Those people who love char don’t really have to hide in the dark anymore. Burned food is having a moment. Charred and blackened foods are all over restaurant menus these days. Part of this seems to stem from our increased consumption of vegetables. As people turn more and more to vegetables they are realizing that burning is a way to create a meaty, umami flavor. If you're one of these people who has a strange affinity for burned food—or if you want to get in on the trend—try a few purposefully burned recipes, like pork chops with charred scallions or charred sweet potatoes or charred green beans with lemon and ricotta. You'll find the permission to break the first and most fundamental rule of cooking liberating.
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