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The Art of Flambe
Time for a dinner with a dramatic touch? Do you need something spectacular with which to impress your guests? The next time you get the urge to prepare a fancy, yet fun, meal, think flambé.
Flambé, a French term, means “flamed” or “flaming.” The process involves setting fire to foods which have had liquor or liqueur added. Not only does the chef make a spectacular presentation but also bonds the rich flavor of the liqueur to the foods without adding any alcoholic content.
Flambéing is a culinary technique that is both old and new. To grill food and then adding sauce is a practice as old as cooking itself. Flambéing became a recognized manner of theatrical display in the dining room, guaranteeing a meal to impress all, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Not only did the alcohol provide extra flavor but gave the chef the opportunity to become a showman.
Even though flambé gives the chef a chance to have fun, it must be remembered the technique has the potential to be dangerous. Always practice fire safety.
The technique itself is fairly simple, providing the chef follows the protocol very carefully. Set out all the needed ingredients (mise en place) and cooking tools (flambé pan, long-handled matches, a large lid to smother flames in case of emergency, etc.) Choose brandy or 80-proof liquor or liqueur. There is too much chance of an out-of-control fire if the liquor has a higher proof. The alcohol should be complementary to the food being cooked; use a fruit-flavored brandy for desserts and fruits while meats call for cognac or whiskey. Select a pan that has rounded but high sides and a long handle, but no nonstick surface. Flambé pans, much like other pans, are available in a wide range of prices. If you plan on doing a great deal of flambéing, it will be worth your while to buy a high-end pan; the pan will be taking rough use.
HOW TO FLAMBÉ
- Using a saucepan with high edges, heat the brandy or liquor until bubbles start to form around the rim. Alcohol boils at 175º F. Alternately, use a microwave oven for 30 to 45 seconds at 100 percent power.
- Do not pour liquor straight from the bottle into the flambé pan if it is near an open flame. Doing it could cost you your life or at least grievous injury; the flame can travel along the stream of alcohol back into the bottle and poof! instant conflagration.
- The food must be adequately hot or it will not alight. The dish as well must also be warm. These conditions must be present for flames.
- Immediately light the flambé pan once the alcohol has been added. If the alcohol sits for too long, the food will reabsorb it and have a harsh flavor. Remember to light the alcohol fumes at the edge of the pan, using a long barbecue-style match. Do not get too close to the lit pan or allow your clothing or long hair to come into a zone where there could be an instant blaze.
- Allow the food to cook until there is no more flame; this will happen when all the alcohol has burned itself off. If you wish to retain some of the alcohol flavor, use a large lid to snuff out the flames or add further alcohol or stock.
- As soon as the flames disappear, dish out the food.
Just creating a flame on food is not actually flambéing. For food to be truly flambéed, a sauce with alcohol on it must undergo a chemical reaction. Many foods are unable to release their true flavors without the assistance of alcohol intervention. Also, a pinch of cinnamon will flame and release its own special flavor.
When choosing a liquor to use in your flambé, start with one that is at least 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume. Consider brandy, cognac, dark rum, whiskey, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or Triple Sec.
Flambé is not limited solely to meat. Let your imagination go. Who knows where it will land? As well as meat, flambé can be used on salads (try flambéing spinach with hard boiled egg) or fruits, to elegant desserts such as Bananas Foster, Crêpes Suzette, and Cherries Jubilee.
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