This Smoky, Spicy Technique is Ready For Its Comeback

January 10, 2018

This article is part of Change The Way You Cook, a new series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.

“When the taste changes with every bite and the last bite is as good as the first, that’s Cajun! I’m a Cajun and that’s Louisiana cooking.”

That’s the late Paul Prudhomme in his iconic 1984 cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. Among other Cajun and Creole classics, like gumbo and jambalaya, the collection includes Prudhomme’s now-famous recipe for blackened redfish.

If you’re thinking: Famous? I’ve never even had redfish! Well, me neither, and that’s my point. The dish’s legacy isn’t the fish, it’s the blackening.

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Blackened was to the 1980s what charred and burnt are to today—a menu buzzword, a culinary trend. All three add bitterness and complexity to balance rich, sweet, or one-dimensional dishes. (Hence why buttered bread becomes all the more addictive when it's buttered, almost-burnt toast.) But unlike charring and burning, which are strictly techniques (cooking any ingredient, in any way, until black), blackening indicates direct heat, say on the stove or a grill, plus a specific spice blend.

“I’ve found that [seasoning mixes] are the best way to use dried herbs and spices,” writes Prudhomme. Early in his career, he snuck homemade blends into the various kitchens where he worked as a cook. “Of course, not only did I get the packets confused, but I got into trouble with more than one chef!”

Fast-forward to today and Prudhomme’s Magic Seasoning Blends are mass-produced, from Meat Magic to Poultry Magic to Vegetable Magic. And, of course, Blackened Redfish Magic and Blackened Steak Magic.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Redfish became popular thanks to Prudhomme’s restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Too popular, in fact, for its own good. As other restaurants across the country replicated and recreated Prudhomme’s signature—redfish became so overfished in Louisiana that, in 1988, it was commercially banned.

So no redfish, no problem. This protein is easy, but it’s the spice blend—and cooking method—that are crucial. Brush your protein with melted butter (or, a la Prudhomme, dunk it), dredge in blackening blend (Prudhomme’s includes salt, cayenne, paprika, onion and garlic powder, dried oregano and thyme), then cook in a squealing-hot cast-iron skillet.

Of course, dried spices burn if you cook them at a high enough heat—but that’s just what we’re going for. Nutty, browning butter, crispy, charing spices, and a gradient crust, blushing between crimson and chestnut and charcoal make for a spicy, smoky flavor and aroma (watch that smoke alarm!).

Before you blacken anything: Turn on the exhaust hood, open the windows, and designate any furry relatives to the bedroom. Now, have some fun:

  • Play around with thin or quick-cooking proteins. Tilapia or flounder fillets, shrimp or scallops, pounded chicken breasts or thighs, smash-burgers. Even vegetables like eggplant or zucchini will char up nicely.

  • It’s a fine line between a delightfully bitter, blackened crust and straight-up ash. So leave thick, sturdy proteins, like halibut or filet mignon or cauliflower steaks—anything that needs more than 3 to 4 minutes per side—for another occasion.

  • To showcase blackening’s bitterness in its best light, consider the pairing. Many assume that the only way to offset bitter is with sweet, but salty, fatty ingredients love bitterness—and vice versa. Such is why black-and-blue burgers—blackened burgers, smothered in melted blue cheese—sound like overkill but are so dang good. The same idea applies to salted Greek yogurt, with plenty of chopped green onions, to dollop atop blackened chicken breasts. It’s not redfish, but I have a feeling Prudhomme would adore it all the same.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nancy essig
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    Emma Laperruque
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


nancy E. January 13, 2018
I keep a jar of this spice mix in my cupboard at all times. I was given the recipe years ago and found it made the best fish tacos. People are always asking for the spice mix recipe. It is wondrous. You don't have to blacken it either, is delicious just sauteed too
Emma L. January 13, 2018
Fish tacos, yes please!