Fire warning

Burning your food may be trendy, but it's pointless and unhealthy

It is easy to get the idea that burning food is a mark of culinary expertise. In the 1960s and 1970s, the height of sophistication was eating at a restaurant where the head waiter, wheeling to our table a trolley bearing a small gas ring, would swaggeringly set ablaze our steak or crêpe. In the 1980s, we started buying woks and followed recipes insisting that the oil be shimmering and smoking before we added the ingredients for our stir-fry. Later in that decade, we fell in love with charred vegetables: every other cookbook appeared with a jacket illustration of a melange of blackened aubergines, peppers and courgettes. Dark stripes from a griddle continue to be seen as aesthetic enhancements to a vegetable or cut of meat. We have learned that we should not wash up our encrusted pans, but deglaze them in order to incorporate the overcooked scrapings in a sauce.

These procedures may be unnecessary, and sometimes unhealthy. Igniting spirits - in, for example, the brandy and cream sauces that were once the default accompaniments to steak - is the accepted way of tempering the flavour of the alcohol. I have found, however, that simply reducing the spirit in a saucepan does just as good a job.

Smoking oil must be a bad thing. The theory is that stir-fried vegetables should be crisp: you want the liquid they disgorge to evaporate immediately, to prevent their stewing in it. But smoking oil is burning, and decomposing. It contains, according to some accounts, a high quantity of carcinogenic free radicals; there are also reports that desirable monounsaturated fats (in which olive oil is high) and polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils) become undesirable trans fats under these conditions. If the cooking utensil is non-stick, it can become dangerous, leaking fumes that have been known to kill pet birds. There is disagreement about these claims; what is indisputable is that food cooked in degraded oil will absorb noisome flavours.

Our enthusiasm for "chargrilled" vegetables went too far. While the flame of the barbecue or heat of the griddle incinerated the surfaces of the vegetables, it often failed to tenderise the interiors. Burnt and undercooked was an unappealing combination.

Caramelisation of food is desirable. The "Maillard reactions" that you get when you brown a piece of meat, for example, add flavour. But the procedure needs careful management. If you crowd the pan, or do not heat it adequately, the reactions will not take place. If you leave space in the pan, or fail to regulate the heat, you may burn your oil. No recipe can give you adequate instructions: you need constantly to monitor the heat of your hob. And to abandon the belief that blackening your food will enhance its appeal.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other