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Blackening is a cooking technique that was created by Chef Paul Prudhomme as a method to cook redfish. The authentic version of blackening relies on the milk solids in butter, as well as the roasting of spices to a lesser extent, for the black color. As the cooking style became more popular, other chefs and restaurants developed alternate styles of blackening foods, usually using pungent spice mixtures and oil to create the blackened crust on the food. Even though the method was developed for use on firm fish, it also can be used on other foods such as chicken, beef and vegetables.
One of the most important aspects involved in blackening is the heat of the pan. The pan needs to be cast iron or something similar that can withstand intense heat. The actual amount of heat required for this cooking method is more than a standard home range top can produce and hotter than most gas grills can achieve. Special outdoor standing fryers or hardwood charcoal typically are the only ways to get the pan hot enough. For non-traditional methods, medium-high heat is usually adequate, although the results are somewhat different.
The authentic preparation begins with a large amount of butter that is melted and cooled but not resolidified. Spices — usually a combination of thyme, garlic salt, pepper and paprika, although some mixtures use a much wider range of spices — are added to the butter. The pan should be incredibly hot at this point and ready for cooking. The meat is then dipped into the cooled butter and spice mixture and immediately placed in the hot frying pan.
The blackening will occur almost immediately as the butter hits the hot pan. A huge amount of smoke also will be created, so this style of blackening is usually performed outdoors. More butter is poured over the meat before the meat is turned to the other side after a few minutes of cooking. The milk solids in the butter will brown and eventually turn black, creating a crust that is infused with the flavor of the spices and sealing in the moisture of the meat.
A more accessible way of blackening food can be done in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. The fish is dipped in butter and then coated in spices. Some oil is added to the hot skillet, after which the fish is placed inside. After a few minutes of cooking, the spices will roast and start to turn dark, as will the butter, although the taste is distinctly different from the higher-heat versions.