How to Flambé

There are a few basic precautions one should always follow when setting a volatile substance alight in one’s home. The first of those is to always have a charged fire extinguisher within easy reach. Next up, make sure you’re not near anything flammable like curtains, and that there aren’t any bottles of booze in the immediate vicinity. When one flambés, the best thing to do is pour the required amount of brandy or liqueur into a glass, then remove the bottle to a safer location. Never ever pour alcohol directly from a bottle into a hot pan. A mishap could send the flame up along the stream of brandy into the bottle and, well, I’d rather not think about what would come next.

The best kind of alcohol for a flambé is warm alcohol. The reason, because warm alcohol is more volatile, which is to say, it gives of more fumes. That’s good because a flambé usually occurs in a watery environment, and the extra volatility helps the alcohol to light up quickly. Cold alcohol can keep your brandy from ever lighting up at all, which kinda defeats the whole purpose. Many flambé aficionados warm their liquor by pouring the required amount into a glass and then zapping the glass in the microwave on high for 10-15 seconds. Sounds weird, I know, but it works.

Pan-wise, you want something broad — to maximize the surface area and the burn-off — but with fairly deep sides to prevent sloshing and spilling of flaming liquids. High sides also keep the alcohol from igniting before you want it to. A long handle is a nice feature for this sort of affair, also.

When ready, pour the alcohol into your hot preparation. Be aware that the longer you let your whatever-it-is sit in alcohol, the more it will absorb, thus the stronger the alcohol flavor. Regardless, don’t let it sit longer than about 30 seconds in the pan or your risk diluting it to the point that it won’t burn.

There are two way to light a flambé, with a match or a fireplace lighter, or with the flame of the burner. The advantages of the first method are obvious, as they provide more control. To do it the other way, grasp the pan by the handle and tilt the pan forward — away from you — so as to get the lip closer to the flame. You shouldn’t have to tip it terribly far, since the idea is to expose the fumes of the alcohol to the fire, not the alcohol itself. Do not attempt this kind of lighting with an electric stove top. But however you do it, be prepared to be surprised by how high the blue and orange flames leap up.

As the fire dies down, and it will after about ten seconds, shimmy the pan a bit to encourage more of the alcohol to burn off. Don’t be too quick to extinguish it, since you not only want alcohol reduction, you want some nice browning. Remember that no matter how bright a burn you have, somewhere around 75% of the alcohol that you put in will still be left in the food. Call it one of the advantages of this style of cooking.

And while this last point should be obvious, I’ll say it anyway: never try attempt to walk anywhere — say from the kitchen to the dining room — with a pan of flaming anything. If showmanship is your thing, get a little portable burner and do like the tuxedoed waiters of old did it: at the tableside. Just stay away from the drapes.

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