While first learning to cook, I burnt food on a fairly regular basis. And I’ve heard from many home cooks that they still run into the occasional burnt food crisis. It can happen to the best of us — all it requires is a bit of heat and taking your eye off the pan for a bit too long. As I’ve become more practiced, burning food has become almost a non-issue. But it almost happened this morning, and I saved my dish in the last moments. So I thought I’d jot a few notes down not so much about avoiding burning food (although I’ll say a few words on that), but rather about how to undo almost-burnt food.

“Almost” is the key word up there. Once food is truly burnt, the only place it belongs is in the compost heap. So what’s the difference between burnt and almost burnt? 30 seconds. (drum rap-a-tap here). Foods have sugars, and when you apply heat to the sugars they brown via the Maillard reaction, a process I covered in detail in my Treatise on Grilling. This reaction occurs when the moisture is gone from the surface. The more the reaction occurs (typically due to a continuing heat source), the more moisture is draw out from the food. The result is dry, burnt food. Yuck!

As the reaction occurs a good amount of the sugars in the food deposit themselves upon the heating surface, this is known in the food industry as fond. And to the untrained eye it may look like burnt garbage, but if treated correctly it is the basis for the most wonderful sauces. And fond is what will save your dish! (Hence my mentioning it)

Now for a quick pause on saving your burnt dish, to talk about avoiding burning food. The best way to save your dish from burning, is to avoid burning altogether! It’s not very hard. Here are five quick tips that will help you avoid burning:

  1. Keep an eye on your food! Don’t walk away from a hot pot.
  2. Use the right amount of heat. Rarely do you need to crank your burners to “high” (of course, it depends on your burner strength). On our stove top, medium-high is about the highest I go, unless for boiling water, searing, or stir frying.
  3. Use the right sized pan. Just as over-filling a small pan will cause your food to under-cook (not enough surface area and heat distribution), under-filling a large pan will cause your food to over-cook (too much heat distribution). Most foods should be cooked in a pan that is sized such that the food evenly covers the surface of the pan in one layer. If the food is stacked up, it’s over-filled; if there is lots of pan surface showing, the pan is under-filled.
  4. Use good pots and pans. Non-stick pans are helpful, but they can more easily lead to burnt food that can not be un-done. While the technique described below can work in non-stick, it won’t work nearly as well. Our “go to” pan is a stainless steel that replaced a stain-full steel pan. We only own two non-sticks (one pan for eggs and one pot for sauces). We recommend Kitchen Aid, All Clad, and Le Creuset.
  5. Add volatiles at the end. Herbs, nuts, and other foods with volatile oils (low smoke points) should be added at the end of your cooking process. Once those types of foods start to burn, there is no going back.

Let’s further define “almost burnt” — it’s when your browning has advanced so that almost everything in the dish is brown and when your food is just not done cooking. In other words, it’s getting close to burnt, but you’ve got a few more minutes (or more) of cooking to do, to get your food to the right temperature.

Now, here’s the part you’ve been waiting for… ideas for how to save your dishes.

The first step is to reduce the heat a bit. You need to slow down the cooking process and cook for a longer period of time. This is where science kicks in. Without going into details, the basis for the trick is to take advantage of the heating curve and thermodynamics of food. It helps to understand how heat and time affect the tenderness and flavor of food, which one learns with experience. But, there is a great research article (warning: PDF) from 1993 by the American Society of Animal Science on the palatability of muscle, it is very closely related to this topic.

Ok, so we’ve lowered the heat being applied. Now we need to add moisture, which can also help lower the temperature and pause the Maillard reaction. Depending on what you’re cooking you can use different liquids. Potential choices include wine (dry is better in this case, you’ve already got enough sugar in the pan), vinegar (keep it dry, balsamic is too sweet), stock (chicken, beef, vegetable are all fine), heck, even water can be your savior. Using something right out of the fridge is preferable, but room temperature is ok.

Next, use a non-abrasive tool (like a wooden spatula, or plastic spoon) to scrape all the fond (burnt bits) off the bottom of your pan. Try to break up any big bits. The goal is to get the fond to dissolve into the newly added liquid. You’ve basically built up a sauce.

You should have a wetter, cooler pan. Now we’re going to take things a step further, we’re going to change cooking technique. If you almost burnt your food, it was probably because you were focusing on direct heat (searing, frying, sauteing, etc.). You’ve got to try to more evenly distribute the heat by adding indirect heat (convection and steaming). That means: put a lid on it! The lid will cause heated air to circulate around the enclosed area; and it will cause the new liquid’s steam to stay near your food. The nice thing about steam (uh oh, more thermodynamics here) is that it stays at high temperature, while requiring about half the heat energy of boiling water. That means the lowered heat source’s energy will expend 66% of it’s energy cooking your food and 33% keeping the steam super hot.

After a few minutes, check your food again. It’s time to taste. Adding the liquid likely altered the seasoning and you’re very likely going to need to add some salt and other seasonings.

Whew, that was more than I meant to write, but I hope it helps and saves some of your future dishes! Let’s review…

First, try to avoid burning by:

  • Keeping an eye on your food;
  • Not over-heating;
  • Using the right-sized pan;
  • Using a good-quality, stainless steel pan; and,
  • Adding low-smoke point foods at the end of cooking.

If your food is almost burnt:

  1. Lower the heat source (reduce your burner).
  2. Add liquid (wine, vinegar, stock, water, etc.).
  3. Scrape the fond off the pan and dissolve into liquid.
  4. Cover the pan.
  5. Taste and re-season.

Good luck out there!

posted by Lon at 11:34 AM Filed under Basics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.