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 English).

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 down.

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 fire.

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.

Flam`bé" (?), a. [F., p.p. of flamber to singe, pass (a thing) through flame. Cf. Flambeau.] (Ceramics)

Decorated by glaze splashed or irregularly spread upon the surface, or apparently applied at the top and allowed to run down the sides; -- said of pieces of Chinese porcelain.


© Webster 1913

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