What is the difference between having some “char” and something being burnt? Why is one something often preferred and the other pretty much universally hated?

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Say you’re having steaks for instance; Why is it that a bit of char tastes good (to a lot of people), but it’s different than being burnt? Isn’t charring just some level of burning? And what makes the difference between when something will taste charred or burnt?

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If you burn something, that means you charred it unintentionally. Something like noodles, cake, etc. that you don’t want that type of flavor involved in. You can also burn foods you do normally char (like meats or peppers) but that requires basically going too far with the char. It revolves around the flavor of the food and how it changes when that happens (this is also excluding the smoky flavor you may get from say a wood grilled char).

Ultimately two different words that mean the same thing, but in different flavor contexts. A bit of char on a marshmallow or a bell pepper is good, a bit of char on your lasagna is not good.

Long story short: charred is lightly blackened or browned and burnt is well black.

Burnt potato’s, burnt brisket ends, has it’s places…. But it’s less edible and less balances and generally less appealing to the appetite and eye

Charing removes organic compounds leaving behind the charcoal. This is done by heating up organic material to a burning temperature without the presence of oxygen. Charred material lights very easily from a spark so it is highly prized for outdoors and survival situations.

Burning on the other hand converts the carbon to carbon dioxide while burning off the organic compounds. In the end you left with ash. The ash however is still useful. It can be mixed into compost or directly into garden beds to add minerals (phosphorus, potassium, etc). As well it can mixed with water to create a lye mixture that can then be used to create soaps.

When you char a steak your burning off some of the grease and oils from the meat and other products you added. This performs two tasks, it seals in the moisture by creating a crust on the surface of the meat. This gives you juicier meat, and holds the flavors in. As well the slight charing concentrates the flavors of the meat, seasonings or sauces supplied. Over all giving you a more flavorful meal.

Burning however you lose moisture because as it burns it opens up the fibers in the meat and boils it off. As well burning releases acids into the meat, causing the sour flavors you get (charring does as well, but the amount released is very small). The loss of moisture and acids also toughens the meat making it unpalatable.

It’s like salt, a little is a nice flavour enhancement, lots is just salty. A little bit of burnt taste is OK but once it dominates the dish it’s too much and doesn’t taste good.