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15 June, 2015

Cooking 101 — Pyromaniac’s Edition

Posted in : flambe, food history, foodie, funny, humor, story, techniques, Uncategorized on by : Jeanette Schramm

Usually, when something in your kitchen is on fire, it’s a problem. That is, unless you are a skilled chef in the art of flambé.

Flambé, or simply flambe, for those of you who don’t have a French keyboard installed, is a method of cooking where alcohol is added to a hot pan, causing it to burst into flames. The word flambé comes from the French word for “flamed.”

Makes sense, right?

Anyway, who would want their food on fire, right? I’m sure most of you can recall times around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, and the goal was to get it that coveted shade of golden brown. What usually happened was you’d get impatient or the stick would dip too low or your marshmallow would take a dive — whatever the method, it would end up on fire and turn into a ball of carbon on a stick. 

That’s not what happens with flambé.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (I think that's Bananas Foster)

Fire burns the first readily combustible thing it finds. In the case of flambe, that’s the alcohol. The alcohol burns at a lower temperature and at a faster rate than whatever you’re cooking, so it goes up in a quick fwoosh of flames, leaving behind your food and the essence of that alcohol — its flavor.

Now, you can opt to just do it for show, like they do at hibachi grills. In that case, just use a pretty neutral or light alcohol. You’ll still get a flame (like those onion ring volcanoes), but it won’t do much to the flavor.

But why? Why in the world did somebody — anybody! — decide it was a good idea to set food on fire for fun. Seems kind of boorish, don’t you think?

Maybe not boors, but the Moors did have a lot to do with the technique we call flambé. The Moors were medieval Muslims who invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711. It wasn’t until sometime during the 14th century, though, that they decided to start lighting their food on fire, though it’s believed that they did it for show rather than to impart flavors. Then again, it’s kind of difficult to ask people from seven centuries ago how they liked their food.

That being said, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that flambéing for the purpose of imparting flavor became popular. Dishes such as bananas foster, cherries jubilee, coq au vin, and crêpes Suzette are popular dishes that use the technique to impart flavor and aroma.

Crêpes Suzette actually has a funny story that links modern flambé to history (or at least a good anecdote). The story goes that, in 1895, a waiter in Monte Carlo, named Henri Charpentier (pronounced ohn-REE SHAR-phon-tee-EH) accidentally sent a pan of crêpes up in flames. The dish was being prepared for future king Edward VII, so Charpentier named the dish after the prince’s companion.
Like many interesting and entertaining food stories, this one’s validity is disputed, as Charpentier may have been too young to have been serving royalty. Either way, it’s an entertaining story.

So we know the definition, some origins, and some dishes, but what sets flambéing apart from simply torching your food? According to Wikipedia, it has to do with the alcohol and the chain of chemical changes that burning it sets off. I’m going to throw some numbers at you. Ready?

Alcohol boils at 172°F, water boils at 212°F, and sugar caramelizes at 338°F. The surface of the burning alcohol often exceeds 500°F, meaning that the pan becomes the studio audience at an Oprah Winfrey fire show.

Oprah meme -- You get a chemical reaction and you get a chemical reaction: EVERYBODY gets a chemical reaction!

When it comes down to the alcohol, not just any ol’ booze will do, either. Liquors like Everclear have such a high alcohol content that they are considered unsafe by many professional chefs (I mean, unless you want your eyebrows singed off). On the flip side, wines and beers don’t have a high enough alcohol content (though they can be used to impart some amazing flavors, like cooking kielbasa and sauerkraut in a crock pot with some beer). Typically, when looking to flambé something, chefs choose a middle of the road liquor, such a rum or cognac, which have plenty of flavor and just enough alcohol in them to catch fire without putting the establishment at risk of going down in a blaze of glory.

Additionally, the alcohol of choice must be heated before being added to the pan. Why? More science!

At room temperature, the alcohol is still below its flash point (the lowest temperature at which a liquid can vaporize, creating a flammable mixture in the air). By heating the alcohol, you bring it closer to that flash point, so that when it’s added to the pan, the air above it can be ignited, which in turn evaporates the rest of the alcohol, as the fire burns.

Since you’re creating flammable vapors, there are some important safety precautions to take when lighting your alcohol on fire. First things first, NEVER light a pan that’s on a burner. Pick it up and back up a bit.
Secondly, unless your hand is intended to be part of the meal, use a long fireplace match to ignite the vapors.
Oh, and thirdly, keep your hair tied back, unless you want to become the human torch and spend the next few days in the hospital (you don’t, and I don’t want you to, either).

So, there you have it! Do with this information what you will, and have fun, you crazy kids!

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