August 18, 2015

adventures with bone charcoal at blue hill

Animal bones are staples of any restaurant kitchen. At Blue Hill, they find multiple uses, with chefs extracting the bone marrow, then using the cleaned bones to enrich broths and sauces. But the life of the bones doesn’t end there.

Inspired by the burgeoning grill program at Blue Hill at Stone Barns—and the discovery that each type of wood charcoal retained a unique aroma after carbonization—we had an idea: What if we could carbonize bones, just like wood?  And what if, just as with wood, we could use them to infuse flavor into a dish through the grilling process?

We succeeded in doing both. The bones are heated in a high-heat, low-oxygen environment so that they carbonize and can be burned like charcoal. And, like charcoal, they’re used as a seasoning agent for a grill. Meat grilled over pig bone charcoal tastes smokier, fattier—like pig squared.  

Still, some of us wondered if it was merely the power of suggestion. So we put together a blind taste test, grilling potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and pork over both plain wood charcoal and carbonized pig bones. People on the panel almost unanimously preferred the items grilled over the bones charcoal.

From pig bones, we’ve gone on to experiment with more refuse products from the kitchen: lamb, beef, venison bones—and also lobster shells, mussel and oyster shells, and corncobs. Some charcoals don’t impart much additional flavor; mussel shell charcoal, for instance, doesn’t have very perceptible effects. But we don’t consider that a failure. With no cookbook or culinary history to refer back to, the goal is simply to experiment and see what works.