To flambé a dish is to coat it in some kind of alcohol and
set fire to it. Such a dish is also referred to as a flambé — the term
can be used as a noun, an adjective (where it often comes after the
noun, as in French) or a verb (where it is conjugated as if it were
There are three main reasons for flambéing a dish:
For flavour. A flambé can enhance the taste of a dish
in two different ways. Firstly, the spirit used will often have its own
strong, distinctive flavour, which remains with the dish even after the
alcohol has been burnt off. Secondly, the burning effect can help
caramelise onions and sear the outside of meat in a way which is extremely
difficult to achieve on many home cookers.
To remove most of the alcohol. When done correctly,
there will be very little alcohol left in a sauce, so consuming a flambéed
dish should not prevent someone from driving.
For visual effect. A flambé can look extremely
impressive, especially when done with carefully chosen ingredients that make
the flame change colour or sparkle. By extension, remaining calm when doing
a flambé conveys the impression that the chef is extremely skilled, an
effect can be very useful when making a date meal.
Equally, there are three ways of doing the flambéing:
The wrong way. This involves pouring some arbitrary
amount of alcohol out of the bottle and straight onto a hot pan over a gas
ring, then igniting it with a lighter. This is an extremely good way of setting oneself on fire and getting showered with high velocity broken glass.
The paranoid way. This involves carefully measuring
out a small amount of alcohol into a shot glass, then removing the pan from the
heat and carrying it far away from any source of naked flame, then pouring
on the alcohol and igniting it using a long handled match that is held well
away from the body with the aid of some tongs.
The problem here is that the alcohol may well not ignite. Being safe is
all well and good, but it can be taken too far — a properly done
flambé is far less likely to cause injury than routine cooking hazards such
as hot cooking oil, insufficiently sharpened knives, hot cooking
implements and cheese graters.
The sensible way. This involves pouring out somewhere
vaguely in the region of 50ml (for 40%) to 100ml (for 20%) of alcohol into a
glass, then briefly moving the hot pan away from the naked flame (gas
cookers only), pouring over the alcohol quickly but carefully and igniting
using a long handled match. Once the alcohol is on fire, the pan should be
swirled gently (but not so much that it splashes) to ensure an even and
thorough burning. It can be returned to the heat once the flames have died
Some practitioners prefer to throw the match into the flame
from a short distance away. This is probably slightly safer, but not as
impressive to watch. The match itself will go out very quickly and will not burn
up or make a mess of the food — the burning occurs slightly above
the surface of the liquid, since the alcohol evaporates before it catches
Some dishes (and drinks, although flaming shots are not a
flambé) call for the food to be on fire when it is served. The same basic
principles apply, although here the alcohol is often ignited separately and then
carefully poured over the dish. Having separate people doing the burning and the
serving is extremely helpful here.
A wide variety of spirits can be used when making a flambé.
However, there are three notable things that cannot be used. Wine and
beer (and similar low alcohol drinks) are unsuitable, since they will not
ignite under sensible circumstances. Vodka could be used, but it will produce
an unpleasant flavour and thus should be avoided, despite claims from various
recipes to the contrary.
At the low alcohol end, port is a popular choice. It
contains just enough alcohol to ignite but will not produce tall flames, making
it a good option for a beginner. Its strong flavour goes well with beef and
pork. Of a slightly lower strength, some sherry can be made to
ignite, but it is very difficult — experiments by bored students suggest
that 17% is the magic point around which flambéing becomes possible, 20% is
where it becomes sensible and 35% is where it becomes fun.
For the more impressive (and more diversely flavoured)
flambés, various spirits are commonly used. Brandy is probably the most
popular choice, and is commonly used on beef, lamb, veal, venison and
pork. Using cheap brandy is acceptable here, although Armagnac and
Calvados both produce a spectacular flavour (a word of warning on Calvados,
however — for some reason, it will produce far taller flames than other
similar spirits of the same strength). For desserts, Cointreau and Grand
Marnier are used to impart an orange flavour, and rum is used to give a
fruity, spicy taste.
In some places very high strength spirits such as
Everclear, Bacardi 151 and extremely strong Vodka are used. This is not
particularly wise — aside from the significantly increased risk, there is
little flavour in any of the underlying drinks.
It is a well established maxim that cinnamon will produce
sparkly flames, leading to some chefs including it more for the effect than the
flavour. The cinnamon can either be sprinkled over the flame or onto the surface
of the liquid, depending upon how brave the chef is.
What is less well known, at least in professional circles, is
that small quantities of various other chemicals produce even better
effects. Common table salt (sodium chloride) will produce yellow flames, which
aren't very useful, but some kinds of "low salt salt" contain significant
quantities of potassium chloride, which gives a purple flame. Going beyond
this can get dangerous — although various chemicals can give bright green
or pink flames, there is also a nasty risk of accidentally producing something
toxic or explosive.