Familiar with the French term “bien cuit” yet? Today’s the day. Our writer opines about how (almost) burned food is just better.
during Day 1 of the New York Culinary Experience 2014 presented by New York Magazine and the International Culinary Center at International Culinary Center on April 5, 2014 in New York City.
Photo: Getty Images/Neilson Barnard
| Credit: Getty Images/Neilson Barnard

Have you ever gotten a baguette from a bakery or grocery store and noticed that it’s pale and pliable, like Italian bread? That there’s no satisfying crunch or crispness to it?

I ate my last baguette like that when I discovered a Brooklyn bakery called Bien Cuit, where the signature loaves are always just on the edge of burned. I’d never liked bitter foods, so I was suspicious, but my first bite of that baguette was transformative. It was crispy and crackled when I bit it, with its darker edges boasting a sort of nuttiness and sweetness.

The shop’s name is a French phrase meaning “well done,” which can apply to all sorts of cooking. Think: Crisp chicken skin. Burnt ends. Gloriously charred burgers and steaks. Caramelized onions. Tarte tatin. It’s something to try once if you’ve never done it before. (Pro tip: Start with cheap cuts or homemade bread so you’re not miserable if you push the cooking a little too far.)

We love grill marks and their ilk for a reason; they mark where the amino acids or sugars have rearranged themselves to produce new flavors—what’s called the Maillard reaction. It can occur in meats, bread, and many different foods if the temperature is high enough, and I like to make it happen in broccoli, cauliflower, caramelized apples and onions, and these days, bread. As I’ve baked my own bread all winter long I’ve gotten closer and closer to my almost-burned ideal loaf.

I’m not alone on this; lots of food lovers like their Brussels sprouts ringed with darker hues, and their roasts edged in onyx, because this reaction produces a whole new set of flavor and aroma components. They can transform anything from French pastries to pork shoulder. The Maillard reaction is—as Zachary Golper writes in his cookbook Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread—“the reason why my breads are bien cuit, pas trop cuit, which is the French way of saying, ‘well baked, but not overdone.’”

Few of us want black-as-night-all-over roasts, and for health reasons you don’t want to char or almost-char everything you cook, but I’ve been finding that literally standing by the oven as something finishes cooking and waiting until my nose tells me the food is done and about to burn is the best trick. You can always keep an eye on the top of your bread loaf or pastries, but its bottom will remain a mystery until you check. If in doubt, open the oven door, and the smell—does it smell different, sweeter, or like it’s about to burn?—will often let you know your food is ready.

Bon appétit.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen