Flaming carrot

Our human obsession with fire and live fire cooking dates back well over a million years. Our ancestors learned that fire, in addition to being a good heat source, could also transform food in a variety of ways. Placing meat on sticks around a fire proved to be an effective way to ward off predatory animals. The heat and smoke enhanced the flavor and texture of the meat, making it both more palatable and easier to digest. And the water loss from the heat and the antibacterial properties in the smoke contributed to the additional benefit of preserving the meat for future consumption.

A Plus for Flavor

Today, modern cooks use fire to manipulate food’s water content in a variety of ways, and these principles apply not only to meats, but also to plant foods. Whether we are talking about direct heat, indirect heat, or combination cooking, the transformation of proteins, starches, and lipids creates interesting flavors and textures. One of the most effective ways to develop flavor is direct-heat, high-temperature cooking, in which we heat sugars to the point where they caramelize, and heat amino acids to the point where the Maillard reaction occurs. Both of these reactions contribute to the browning effect we desire in certain foods. The crust on freshly baked bread, the roasted aroma of coffee beans, and the browned exterior of a properly cooked piece of meat are just a few examples of the versatility of these flavor development tools.

Recently, I have become energized by the idea of cooking with live fire. While live fire cooking clearly is not a new idea, I have been searching for ways to enhance flavors and textures through non-traditional methods. Fire roasting, charring, hot and cold smoking, and cooking directly in or on coals are a few of the techniques I have used to amplify flavor.

Though great for flavor development, these techniques are known to create harmful carcinogens and chemical compounds that can be detrimental to our health. The most damaging are heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). HCAs are formed when creatine and amino acids react under heat. PAHs create many different compounds through the incomplete combustion of fuel sources above 390 degrees F and below 800 degrees F.

The good news? A diet higher in plant-based foods can combat these detrimental effects by reducing the quantity of HCAs and PAHs. Not only do plants have fewer HCA/PAH-creating compounds, but their antioxidants help fight the effects once the compounds are created.

Firing Up Your Veggies

A diet rich in plant-based foods is a great strategy to improve our overall health, and employing live-fire/high-heat techniques in the preparation of these foods can create truly remarkable flavors and textures. Slowly roasting beets, carrots, and other root vegetables that are covered by smoldering embers concentrates their natural sweetness and imparts a rich, smoky flavor. Slightly charring lettuce, chicories, and other greens adds depth and character to salad preparations. Cooking high-water vegetables like tomatoes and summer squashes enhances their texture and intensifies their flavor.

These are just a few examples of how you can apply dynamic live-fire cooking techniques to heighten the flavor profile of plant-based foods. Give it a try! You can start with my Fire-Roasted Carrot Hummus.

Gold-medal-winning chef Patrick Clark is an associate professor of culinary arts at the Texas campus, where he teaches students in the associate degree program.