Chicken tacos with charred corn salsa. Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

As adept as I am in the kitchen, like anyone, I sometimes get careless or lose focus. When that happens, accidents can occur, and I might end up burning whatever it is that I’m making.

In most instances, I can play it off by just adding “blackened” or “charred” to the name of the dish. But when food reaches the point of being inedible, it’s simply burned.

In reality, charring and burning are pretty much the same thing – the difference between the two is the amount of surface area to which that heat is applied.

“With concentrated heat, you can burn and char and create blackened, deep and somewhat bitter flavors in ingredients, while holding back from actually setting them on fire,” flavor scientist Arielle Johnson wrote in “Flavorama.”

When we think about the five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami), we know that each time we introduce one to a dish, it can create complexity that improves the overall flavor. In that context, the smoky bitterness of a charred ingredient can be a great addition. So, in certain instances, we intentionally push food to this extreme in pursuit of flavor, and it’s this intent that often separates charring from burning.

Chemically speaking, char and burn happen via a process called pyrolysis, which is the degradation of organic matter in the absence of oxygen at very high temperatures. “Pyrolysis is destructive creation, intentionally ripping through the material of an ingredient to create burnt flavors within it,” Johnson wrote. Limiting the pyrolysis is the trick. “Charring ingredients in thin and superficial layers, or only small areas, makes this complex and intriguing, rather than just carelessly burnt.” It’s similar to how having a couple of glasses of wine can enhance the overall experience of a meal, but one too many and you end up regretting it. In both instances, moderation is key.

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For this chicken tacos recipe, we’re charring corn to make salsa. Charring works particularly well for foods that are high in natural sugar, such as corn, carrots and sweet potatoes, as adding a touch of bitterness makes them that much more delicious. (If bitter food sounds off-putting to you, consider dark chocolate.)

To make this salsa, you’ll start by cooking the corn kernels in a hot skillet until black spots appear. (The kernels have a tendency to pop, so use a splatter screen or partially cover the pan with a lid to keep them from jumping ship.) The charred corn then gets mixed with jalapeño, red onion, cilantro, and lime juice and zest. The result is a lovely, complex combination of sweet, bitter, spicy, sharp, herbaceous and acidic that I had to hold myself back from eating by the spoonful.

Instead, I used it to adorn chicken tacos where boneless, skinless chicken thighs get tossed in cumin, oregano, smoked paprika and garlic powder before being seared. The salsa adds loads of flavor, yes, but it also contributes crunch from the red onion and pops of juiciness from the corn kernels. Throw in some tortillas – don’t forget to warm them first! – and sour cream, or your choice of taco fixings, and you end up with a weeknight-friendly meal that you’ll want to make again and again.

Charred corn salsa. Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

Chicken Tacos with Charred Corn Salsa

These chicken tacos are topped with a charred corn salsa that adds texture, acidity, herbaceousness and a touch of spice. Charring the corn imbues it with a hint of smoky bitterness that complements its inherent sweetness. The chicken gets tossed in cumin, oregano, smoked paprika and garlic powder before being seared. Serve with tortillas and a dollop of sour cream, or your choice of taco fixings, for a weeknight-friendly meal.

4 to 6 servings (makes 12 tacos)

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Total time: 30 mins

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

INGREDIENTS

For the chicken

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds total)

1 teaspoon ground cumin

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1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as peanut or vegetable

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12 (6-inch) corn tortillas, warmed, for serving

Sour cream, for serving (optional)

For the corn salsa

1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as peanut or vegetable

1 (10-ounce) package frozen corn kernels (or 2 cups fresh; if frozen, no need to defrost)

Fine salt

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Freshly ground black pepper

1 to 2 jalapeños, ribs and seeds removed, finely diced

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest (from 1 lime)

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 2 limes), plus more to taste

1/2 medium red onion (3 1/2 ounces total), diced (1/2 cup)

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

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STEPS

Season the chicken: In a medium bowl, mix together the chicken, cumin, oregano, smoked paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper until evenly combined.

Make the corn salsa: In a large (12-inch) cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the corn, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the corn is charred in spots, about 4 minutes. (Partially cover the skillet to prevent kernels from flying across your kitchen, if needed.) Transfer the kernels to a medium bowl, and return the skillet to the burner.

Cook the chicken: Reduce the heat to medium, add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and cook without moving until nicely browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Flip the chicken over and continue cooking until nicely browned on the other side and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of each thigh registers at least 165 degrees, another 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 2 to 3 minutes.

Assemble the salsa: To the bowl with the charred corn, add the jalapeños, lime zest and juice, onion and cilantro and stir to combine. Taste, and season with more lime juice, salt or pepper, if needed. You should have about 2 1/2 cups.

Dice the chicken and spoon some onto each tortilla, along with some of the salsa (you may not use it all). Serve warm, with sour cream, if using.

Substitutions: Boneless, skinless chicken thighs can be replaced by breasts, with an adjustment to the cooking time. Vegetarian or vegan? Use the spices to flavor canned black or pinto beans (drained and rinsed, if desired). Instead of corn tortillas, you can use flour tortillas. Want a shortcut? Use frozen fire-roasted corn, defrosted and drained, and combine with the other salsa ingredients. Don’t like cilantro? Skip it, or use parsley.

Nutrition | Per serving (2 tacos plus 1/4 cup salsa), based on 6: 279 calories, 23g carbohydrates, 75mg cholesterol, 13g fat, 3g fiber, 19g protein, 3g saturated fat, 254mg sodium, 2g sugar


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