Caramelized, But Not Candied
The basics of better browning.
Everyone’s first encounter with “caramel” was probably an ooey-gooey candy, perhaps a bite sized treat on Halloween or straight from the bag during a cookie making marathon. Later, you might have oohed and aahed over a perfectly caramelized crème brûlée. It’s the color brown that’s the link, and understanding how and why foods brown leads to all kinds of delicious possibilities.
A single recipe — Savory Caramel Chicken with Roasted Pumpkin — captures the full range of everything wonderful about caramelization and food browning. The recipe is based on the popular Vietnamese caramel chicken, and two kinds of browning take place, one with sugars and another with the proteins in the chicken. The final result earns applause with a depth of flavor that’s simultaneously sweet, savory and salty with a subtle tartness.
If you’ve ever left a peeled banana or sliced apple on a plate for too long, you know that some foods turn brown simply by being exposed to air. The situation is different for sugars and meat. Sugars caramelize and proteins brown through heat. Food scientists draw distinctions between what happens when sugars and proteins are heated, and if you’d like to swap your kitchen apron for a lab coat, look into the Maillard reaction.
In the meantime, just know this. Roasting the pumpkin in this recipe beautifully caramelizes the starchy veggie due to its abundant natural sugars, and sautéing the chicken over high heat will quickly brown the exterior of the poultry. And don’t wash out that skillet just yet. There’s one more tasty step to go.
Sautéing the chicken does more than begin a cooking process that finishes in the oven. As the meat browns, it leaves behind the foundation of a great sauce. After you’ve sautéed the chicken, stir some water into the skillet, scrape up the browned bits and build the sauce according to the recipe. Brown sugar is a key ingredient, and it let’s you make a caramel sauce to bring out the best in the chicken and roasted pumpkin.
A dish this satisfying calls for just the right sides, and gai lan — also known as Chinese broccoli — is a healthy, leafy green vegetable to get acquainted with. Look for it at your local grocery or farmers market. It steams or blanches quickly, and the flavor mellows during cooking. Serve with fragrant jasmine rice, and this is truly a feast for the senses, caramelized and browned with time proven techniques you can use meal after meal.