Cooking food at different temperatures over various time periods creates unique textures and brings out distinctly different flavors. From low and slow smoking all the way to hot and fast searing. We’re breaking down what blackened food actually is, what differences it has to the more common grilling technique, and how easily you can do it to recreate the most amazing Cajun-inspired masterpieces.
Blackened vs grilled? Let’s find out.
Blackened Vs. Grilled - What’s The Difference?
Blackening your meat became very popular in the 1980s as a whole new way to prepare your food. While grilling involves cooking your meat over a high heat to seal in the juices, blackening your meat takes it to a whole new level. The secret is using butter, which has a much lower burning point than oil, and superheating it to affix the rub onto the meat. The heat sears the meat, and the butter blackens the spices, creating a delicious blackened crust that’s bursting with flavor.
Whereas traditional blackened meat is made with hot spices like cayenne pepper, or Cajun spice, which gives the meat a spicy, flavorful kick, grilling food requires no seasoning, or at the least some salt and pepper.
Blackening meat can be a little more challenging than grilling meat, but if you’re up to the challenge, you can start making Cajun-inspired right in the comfort of your own kitchen. Since you are using such high heat, do be sure the meat has reached its desired internal temperature before serving, as sometimes the look of black all over can be deceiving. Either cut into it to check or use your trusty instant-read thermometer at the deepest part of the meat.
How Grilling Is Different From Blackening
Grilling meat is a little different. Unlike using dry spices and butter to achieve the blackening effect, grilled meats can be brined, marinated, soaked, rubbed, or even left naked. You can soak your meat in a spice marinade to enhance the flavor or you could throw it directly on the grill with no spices or rubs, both are as good as gold. Grilling takes a little longer, but this also gives you more control over the cooking process. You have the time to keep an eye on the meat and monitor its internal temperatures more easily.
Unlike with blackened meat which creates a distinct crispy crust, searing meats on the grill doesn’t necessarily make your meats “crispy”. It’s more often caramelized, and creates more of a chewy barky exterior.
When grilling, you’re also able to play with the flavors more easily as it cooks. This could be by adding butter, herbs, aromatics, or even a smoky flavor by using wood chips and a smoking box for your grill. With blackened meat, you don’t have this luxury, so you have to be more selective of your flavors and seasonings before adding the meat to the pan.
For the best blackened meat seasoning, you’ll need to build a seasoning blend based around the use of salt, pepper, cayenne powder, paprika, and oregano, but will often involve a other herbs and spices.
- 2 Tbsp Smoked Paprika
- 2 Tbsp Cayenne Pepper (or 1 Tb if you like it more mild)
- 1 Tbsp Onion Powder
- 1 Tbsp Garlic Powder
- 1 Tsp Cracked Black Pepper
- 1 Tsp Salt
- 1 Tsp Dried Oregano
- 1 Tsp Dried Thyme
Once you have practiced how to blacken meat, you could start experimenting with the spice recipe. However, it’s essential to use a mixture of herbs and spices to balance out the flavors. If you go too much on the spicy side the blackened meat can taste distinctly bitter and spicy which is quite unpleasant.
Once you’ve prepared your spice mixture, keep it in an airtight container, and bust it out to blacken just about any kind of meat. This includes chicken, pork, beef, fish, turkey, quail, venison, bison, duck, and other meats. If you’re vegetarian or want a balanced meal, you can also blacken vegetables or tofu.
For more about spice, check out the full guide to essential spices.
What Does Blackened Seasoning Taste Like?
Traditional blackened seasoning has a hot and spicy flavor, with an aromatic, fresh herb smell and after-taste. The spicy flavor is the perfect complement to the crispy blackened exterior and the juicy meat inside, and the herbs take away from any bitterness that comes from the blackening process.
Cayenne pepper and paprika are common seasoning ingredients as well as thyme, basil and oregano. If you prefer more heat, you could experiment with different spices that harken back to the technique’s Cajun-inspired roots. Most blackened seasoning also has a few basic ingredients like salt and pepper that enhance the rest of the spices.
Does Blackened Mean Spicy
Since Cajun-style blackened seasoning is based around cayenne pepper and paprika, there will always be a level of spice involved. However, if it’s a well-balanced blackened seasoning then the spice won’t be overpowering, and the herbs and more mellow spices will keep in together.
How Do You Blacken Fish Or Meat
- Prepare Your Pan: turn your stove or burner to a medium high heat and place a cast iron skillet or saucepan on the heat and leave it until it’s hot hot hot.
- Prepare Your Seasoning: melt a lob of butter slightly in the microwave, and make sure you have your spice mix poured out evenly on a flat plate.
- Coat Your Food: Dip the entire fish or meat into the butter, coating it on all sides. From here place the food onto the seasoning mix and coat generously all over that bad-boy.
- Blackening Time: Place the fish skin side down, or meat fat side down in the center of the hot pan. Depending on the thickness you’ll need to cook it for about 3-4 minutes a side.
- Extra Flavor: Before flipping your food, pour another tablespoon of butter over the top of the meat, followed by a touch more of the spice mix. This will help blacken the other side too.
It’s normal to have a bit of smoke particularly at the start of the process, so put your exhaust fans on to clear it easily.
This process of blackening can be used on many foods, but is most popularly used on:
- Blackened Fish
- Blackened Chicken
- Blackened Steak
- Blackened Pork
- Blackened Shrimp
The fundamental technique stays the same no matter what you are blackening. And all you need is a hot skillet, preferably cast iron, butter, and your seasoning.
Blackened Vs. Charred
Unlike blackened meat, charred meat doesn’t require the use of spices. Instead, you simply place it on the grill and let it cook until it develops a crispy, charcoaled crust. Charred meat might look similar to blackened meat, but when you take a bite, you’ll find that it lacks the spicy flavor that people associate with Cajun cuisine.
You can char just about anything: chicken, turkey, pork, beef, venison, duck, fish, vegetables, tofu and anything else that tastes good with a crispy crust. Charred food should have a delicious smoky flavor and a tender, juicy interior. You could add a sauce, marinade or dry rub to your meat, but there’s nothing wrong with the simple pairing of a nice chewy charred exterior, and savoury tenderness of the meat.
Most people don’t attempt to char meat until they’ve mastered the art of grilling because it’s much easier to overcook your meat, and if done wrongly you’ll get a mouth full of charcoal.
Blackened Vs. Burnt
Even though blackened meat looks similar to burnt meat, when it comes to texture and flavor there is a clear difference.
Unlike blackened meat, burnt meat tends to have a hard, dry texture and a tough exterior that’s hard to chew. For most people, burnt meat has an unpleasantly bitter flavor. However, some people prefer the unique taste of burnt food. If you’re one of those people, you can burn just about anything: meat, vegetables, tofu and anything else you throw on the grill. Burnt food is one of the easiest cooking methods because it involves deliberately leaving your food on the grill for too long.
Blackened meat might look burnt on the outside, but it actually has a savory blend of spices and a rich, juicy flavor inside. Instead of a tough, chewy exterior, blackened meat has a crispy crust that brings out the natural flavor of the meat. Blackened meat is usually more tender too, as with burnt meat it often gets much more overcooked.