Flambé (also spelled flambe), is a cooking procedure in which alcohol is added to a hot pan to create a burst of flames. The word means flamed in French (thus, in French, flambé is a past participle; the verb is flamber).
Flambéing is often associated with tableside presentation of certain liqueur-drenched dishes, such asBananas FosterorCherries Jubilee, when the alcohol is ignited and results in a flare of blue-tinged flame. However, flambéing is also a step in makingCoq Au Vin, and other dishes and sauces, using spirits, before they are brought to the table. By rapidly burning off the volatile alcohol, flambéing can infuse a dish with additional aroma and flavour, and moderates the harshness of raw, high-proof spirits. The partial combustion of the flammable alcohol results in flames which quickly consume the liquid, however, some residual flavours usually remain.
Although the practice of igniting food for show can be traced to the Moors in the 14th century, modern flambéing became popular only in the late 19th century. According to his own story, it was discovered in Monte Carlo in 1895, when Henri Charpentier, a waiter, accidentally set fire to a pan of crêpes he was preparing for the future Edward VII of the United Kingdom, which he namedCrêpe Suzetteafter the prince’s companion. He discovered that burning the sauce affected its flavour in a way that he could not have anticipated. Larousse Gastronomique, however, disputes this story, claiming Charpentier could not have been old enough at the time to be serving royalty.
Simply lighting food on fire is not flambéing in and of itself. Igniting a sauce with alcohol in the pan changes the chemistry of the food. Because alcohol boils at 78 °C (172 °F), water boils at 100 °C (212 °F) and sugar caramelizes at 170 °C (338 °F), ignition of all these ingredients combined results in a complex chemical reaction, especially as the surface of the burning alcohol exceeds 240 °C (500 °F).
Because of their high alcohol content, some recipes recommend flambéing with liquors such as Everclear or 151. However, these spirits are highly flammable and are considered much too dangerous by professional cooks. Wines and beers have too little alcohol and will not flambé. Rum, cognac, or other flavourful liquors that are about 40% alcohol (80 USA proof) are considered ideal. Cinnamon, which is ground from tree bark, is sometimes added not only for flavour, but for show as the powder ignites when added.
The alcoholic beverage must be heated before lighting it on fire. This is because at room temperature, the liquid is still below the flash point, and there are not enough alcoholic vapours to ignite. By heating it, the vapor pressure increases, releasing enough vapors to catch fire from the match.
Effect on taste
Since taste is a very subjective sense, not everyone can discern a change in flavour as a result of flambéing. Some claim that because the flame is above the food and since hot gases rise, it cannot significantly affect the flavour, although in an informal taste test conducted by the Los Angeles Times of two batches of caramelised apples (one flambéed and one simmered), one tester declared the “flambéed dish was for adults, the other for kids”. Others, however, dispute this and quote celebrated French chefs who claim that flambéing is strictly a show-biz aspect of restaurant business and ruins food and is done to create an impressive visual presentation at a dramatic point in the preparation of a meal. Whatever the effect on taste, it can reveal when the alcohol has evaporated.
For safety reasons, it is recommended that alcohol should never be added to a pan on a burner, and that the cook uses a long fireplace match to ignite the pan.
Flambé Tips and Hints
- Use a flambé pan with rounded, deep sides and a long handle.
- Heat liquor slowly over a low flame in a pot with high sides to avoid the chance of it igniting prematurely. (The boiling point of alcohol is 79°C, much lower than water.)
- The alcohol can be warmed in the microwave for about 15 seconds at 100% power until it is just warm to the touch.
- Use long fireplace matches or a long barbecue lighter to light the fumes of the alcohol at the edge of the pan, not the liquor itself.
- Be prepared for a whoosh of potentially far-reaching flames and stand back accordingly, making sure to avert your face.
- Do not pour liquor straight from the bottle to the hot pan. The lit fumes can follow the liquor stream back to the bottle and cause an explosion. Pour the needed amount into a different container, warm it, and then add.
- Once you add the liquor to the pan, do not delay lighting. You do not want the food to absorb the raw alcohol and retain a harsh flavour.
- Be sure to let it burn long enough or the flavour of the alcohol will overpower the food. Stir to combine flavours before serving.
- Choose liquors or liqueurs that are complimentary to the food being cooked, such as fruit flavoured brandies for fruits and desserts and whiskey or cognac for meats.
- An asbestos cooking mitt can also help ensure a burn-free flambé experience.
- If the dish doesn’t light, it’s probably not hot enough.
- If you are planning the flambé as a performance for your guests, do not light the dish until it is at the table, far away from guests and any centerpieces or flammable objects.
- Do not carry a lighted dish to the table. The liquid could splash out of the pan, resulting in burn or fire hazard.
- The food to be flamed must also be warm. Cold foods may cool down the warm liquor to a point where it will not light.
- Meats will require 30ml of liquor or liqueur per serving.
- If you don’t want to spring for a full bottle of liquor, most purveyors sell single serving miniature sizes.
- For desserts and fruits, sprinkle with granulated sugar before adding the warmed liquor and lighting.
- If you want the flames, but do not want the liquor in a dessert, soak sugar cubes in a flavoured extract (not imitation). Place the cubes around the perimeter of the dish and light.
- Perform your flambé in a darkened room for a more theatrical effect, but be sure you have enough light to see what you’re doing.
- For more tips and hints, see Cooking with Alcohol – Basics and Substitutions.