In Praise of Caramelization

I used to be afraid of burning my food. I could cope with just a hint of browning, and no more. Certainly no one wants to eat burnt onions! And though I’ve read Harold McGee’s eponymous tome On Food and Cooking, which is the accepted authority on the science of cooking, and I know that intellectually I should not fear the deep brown, – even mahogany – color in the bottom of my pot, in practice it seems I’ve remained quite timid.

It’s funny how we understand how something works, and even why it works the way it does, but we still get hung up about it. As it so happens, recently I’ve been careless with my cooking – I’ve been tired so my internal “this dish is done cooking” clock was switched off more times than I care to admit. And I came pretty close to burning dinner a few times too many. But here’s the thing – I didn’t burn the dinners. And those whoops-almost-didn’t-catch-it-in-time dinners were probably the best versions of those dishes I’ve ever made.

Thank you, proper caramelized fond. Case in point – the perloo I made last night. Last night was crazy. Husband was out at a doctor’s appointment and as soon as he got home I was running out the door to a committee meeting, so I had to squeeze in actually cooking dinner in the sliver of time in between. Plus get kiddo something to eat, finish up office work, pay some bills – all kinds of random things. The perloo I make is a riff on Saveur recipe, and if you’re not familiar with it, it’s akin to a jambalaya. I swap the oysters for chicken thighs and the ham for bacon, but it’s basically the recipe verbatim otherwise. The onions were about thisclose from getting pitched in the trash, they were that dark. But not yet burnt. And the chicken thighs were a lovely roasted-Thanksgiving-turkey dark brown – which is much, much darker than I usually let them go. Everything for a good, scary bit was stuck fast in that pan. There was a moment I thought all hope was lost. But then I deglazed the pan with the tomatoes, and that lovely mahogany fond became instantly unstuck, and all of those wonderful bits of flavor suddenly became not a mess to scrape out of the pan in a fit of disappointed tears, but the intense flavor punch they were meant to be.

Mind you, intellectually I’ve know that how caramelization and deglazing and all of that good stuff works for most of the years I’ve been cooking. I’ve read it a thousand times, seen Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and Ming Tsai stress the importance of it on television for years, but it just never really sank in in a way where I felt it. So maybe I haven’t been getting careless in my cooking at all – maybe as a cook I’ve just matured a little bit. The “it’s done cooking” clock wasn’t broken or turned off, it just reset. And thank goodness.