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The ancient Egyptians used its powder as often as three times a day. Even then, vegetable charcoal was known for its detoxifying properties, its ability to deflate a bloated tummy and provide a natural cure for various medical problems. In the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, a new variety of sweet biscuits started to become popular in English cities; their mixture was similar to the well-known digestives, in which flour used to be mixed with charcoal powder, vegetable carbon in other words. Apparently, the middle classes raved about them, especially at teatime, accompanied with mature cheese and fruit, owing to their attractive colour and widely praised digestive properties. Up until the present day: cooking with vegetable charcoal has now become a health, beauty and food trend.
Technically speaking, vegetable charcoal is an additive for mixing with other ingredients (such as flour), obtained by burning wood of various kinds: the most commonly used species are birch, bamboo and poplar. Today, its culinary use has spread to the kitchens of great chefs and it is most appreciated in oven baked products; expert bakers and pastry chefs are enthusiastic while particular interest is being expressed by the food industry and large-scale retail channels.
That shade of black so popular with chefs
It’s all thanks to the colour. That shade of black that goes with everything, even in cooking: it adds personality to a dish, enhancing the other colours and ingredients when the moment comes to present them, or an element of surprise; it upgrades the plainest of food (such as hamburgers, in which the bread dough is mixed with flour containing vegetable charcoal, or pasta, which takes on shades of black instead of white to make the sauce stand out more vividly). It has no side effects: it is almost tasteless and may be added to sweet or savoury recipes.
In fact, it has a wide range of applications and many chefs have put charcoal-based dishes on their menus: the most widespread use is that of using charcoal in bread and focaccia dough, or for making crackers on which to serve meat or fish, cheese or vegetables. It is commonly accompanied with caviar, for instance, and seafood. The second use is that of flavouring and colouring vegetable oils (extra virgin olive oil mainly) with a little vegetable charcoal powder, to give a different shade of colour to this ingredient, even uncooked, and to make the presentation of the dish more impacting (especially if the plate is white or light coloured).
Cooking with Charcoal, From Desserts to Cocktails
Thirdly, it is used in desserts: various ice-cream makers have started to offer charcoal ice-cream (mixed with liquorice, as well as vanilla pods), to combine a grey-black scoop with the more colourful fruit sorbets or the candid colours of milk or cream-based flavours; in France, “black croissants” are an alternative to the traditional chestnut coloured ones. Finally, vegetable charcoal has become a protagonist of cocktails: at the Mission Chinese Food in New York, the barman has created a total black drink in which charcoal provides consistency to a mix of mezcal, sake and honey. Charcoal is now appearing on the menus of famous cocktail bars all over the world.
A myth to explode: the charcoal detox diet
Poised midway between diet and health, in the past couple of years, vegetable charcoal has become one of the most popular ingredients for diets based on smoothies and concentrated fruit and vegetable juices used in detox diets. Consequently, charcoal is available in bottles, either in the simple version of “charcoal water” or in lemonades and extracted vegetable juices, with the promise of purifying the organism and eliminating the toxins associated with overeating.
However, the medical profession has issued a warning with regard to charcoal-based culinary products: the quantity of charcoal powder and the type of charcoal used produce no proven benefits when dishes containing this black ingredient are consumed, also because the quantities used are quite insignificant. More important still, no in-depth medical research has yet been carried out on this topic: as some gastroenterologists explain, while it is true that charcoal can absorb toxins and eliminate them, it cannot be excluded that it does the same thing with nutrients which are necessary to the body and should be retained. What we do know, however, is that apart from tried and tested medical uses such as detoxifying the organism in the event of poisoning, charcoal in cooking is a lot of fun: a way to make a dish more colourful and interesting, without attributing any miraculous powers to it.