The hallmarks of a bitter Chicago winter— dirty snow banks, ashen pavement, and stinging wind—threatened from outside. We were inside, tucked warmly in the lower level of a restaurant for burger night. The house-made beef patties, ground from trim of expensive cuts (courtesy of the pricey sister restaurant upstairs) and sandwiched between lightly toasted potato buns (also made in-house), languid melted cheese, and pickled onions were perfectly simple, delicious, and familiar. Yet there was something we couldn’t quite put our fingers on. What was that flavor? Something about the onions. Maybe a spice in the pickling liquid? Finally, we broke down and asked our server.“They’re charred, then pickled.” Ah, charred!
Charring is an unfussy preparation that’s less about skill and more about timing. Well-timed carrots cooked under the broiler toe the line between caramelized sweetness and subtly blackened savoriness. Poorly timed carrots, however, just burn. The key is to position the oven rack just far enough from the heat source to achieve the desired amount of char gradually. A kitchen timer and your sense of sight and smell come in handy, too. So use the cooking times listed as a starting point, keep a close eye, and don’t be afraid to pull your ingredients out of the oven and give them a stir or flip them over to get that perfect amount of blistered and blackened goodness.
This collection of recipes treats charring like the member of an ensemble cast, working in tandem with other techniques as well as glazes, sauces, and spice blends to build layers of complexity and flavor. All sorts of ingredients—especially vegetables—can benefit from this simple method, so use these dishes as a mere jumping-off point for experimentation.