Whether you’re searing meat, frying potatoes, baking bread, or caramelizing sugar, color is a pretty good indicator of flavor development, and a rich shade of brown is usually the goal. It’s a visual cue that proteins and/or sugars in the food have undergone either Maillardization or caramelization—both complex chemical reactions that break down a food’s molecules and cause them to react with each other, creating hundreds of new flavor compounds that smell and taste delightfully complex. Maillard browning boasts savory, meaty, roasty, buttery depth; caramelization can overlap with the roasty, buttery profile, but it skews more bitter and sharp.
By that color spectrum logic, a surface that has merely tanned hasn’t reached its full flavor potential, and one that has blackened entirely has overshot the mark and burned. But there’s a zone of prized, next-level flavor and complexity as food pushes past the browning phase and elements of charred flavor come into being and coexist with the browned flavors. A crème brûlée’s torched sugar crust, the charry edges of barbecued brisket, blistered aromatics in curry paste, and the smoking milk solids and spices that define Prudhomme’s blackening technique all live here, and they’re thanks to an entirely different set of chemical reactions, called pyrolysis. The term, which is rooted in the Greek words for “fire” and “to break” or “release,” refers to decomposition brought on by high temperatures—in essence, burning. When proteins and sugars are heated to temperatures above 350 degrees, the compounds they formed during Maillardization and caramelization break down even further into smaller molecules that taste deeply roasty, tarry, smoky, and bitter, offering a dark allure all their own. The trick to doing it well is restraint: Food can take only a modest dose of pyrolysis before it tastes truly burnt.
Make Even Cutlets
A chicken breast has a thick end and a thin end, so it can be tricky to turn it into uniform cutlets. This method makes it easy.
Keep Smoke to a Minimum
The combination of butter, a spice rub, and fiercely hot cast iron gives blackened foods their beyond-Maillard color and depth—and usually sends smoke billowing from the pan. Here’s how this recipe helps limit that.
A cast-iron skillet’s ability to retain heat makes it the best vessel for quickly blackening the exterior of the chicken without overcooking the middle.