How To Easily (And Safely) Flambé

Flambéing: it's not just for show. While cooking with chef Didier Montarou of the InterContinental Hotel Boston recently, I learned that the dramatic act of igniting flames in a pan is not just to show off while cooking, which so many people believe it is, but is actually necessary to obtain certain flavors.

Flambé is French for "flamed," and the act of flambéing radically burns away alcohol so that the food is able to take on subtle flavors from the liquor without absorbing its harsh taste. Flambéing is a lot more complex than just adding a bit of alcohol to a dish because it boils the water and alcohol and caramelizes sugar all at once. So, with all of its complexity, the technique results in a unique flavor one would not get without flambéing.

A perfect example of this is the pumpkin tart recipe that Montarou and I developed that day. When I asked him if he thought it was OK for me to suggest that novice cooks could skip that step (out of fear for their eyebrows and eyelashes), Montarou replied with a firm no. Without igniting the rum with the pumpkin slices and the sugar, the taste of alcohol would be too severe and the sugar would not caramelize properly, preventing the recipe from obtaining all the delicious qualities we loved it for.

Click here to see the Pumpkin Rum Tart Tatin Recipe 

So before you go and try our pumpkin tart recipe, there are a few key things to remember when flambéing to ensure perfect (and safe) results:

  1. The type of the alcohol you use is important. It's recommended to use an alcohol with a proof higher than 80 and less than 120 for perfect and safe results. Also, as is always the case with cooking, pick a liquor that will complement the dish you're making.
  2. Make sure the alcohol is at room temperature or warmer — but not boiling. If it's too cold, it won't ignite.
  3. Remove the pan as far away from the stove top as possible before pouring in the alcohol. If you're too close to the open flame, it can ignite the alcohol stream and cause the entire bottle to explode.
  4. Always use a large pan with high sides and a long handle. When you're ready to ignite, gently tip the edge of the pan toward the flame and away from you. Alternatively (and for those who use an electric stovetop), you can use a long matchstick to ignite. Make sure you hold the pan away at arm's length to avoid getting burned.
  5. Shake the pan vigorously and allow the alcohol to burn and die off on its own, but always have a lid nearby in case you need to extinguish the flame yourself. 

Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce