We can’t think of too many things that will give you more kitchen cred in the eyes of your guests than successfully (and intentionally) lighting food on fire. But as dramatic as it looks, flambéing is more than just flashy theatrics. It performs a crucial role in flavor development.
Adding alcohol to a dish and lighting it generates significant amounts of heat and helps develop a more intense, complex-tasting sauce through Maillard reactions and caramelization. (Technically, flambéing is the ignition of the alcohol vapor that lies above the pan.)
Accomplishing this feat at home feels daunting. To flambé successfully and safely, turn off the stove’s exhaust fan and any other lit burners, tie back long hair, and have a pot lid ready nearby to smother any flare-ups. Use a long, wooden fireplace match or a wooden skewer, and light the alcohol with your arm extended to full length. Sometimes, if using a larger amount of alcohol in a recipe, we flambé in two stages to keep the height of the flames and their burning time to a minimum.
We found that heating alcohol to 100 degrees (best achieved by adding it to a pan off the heat and then letting it heat for about 5 seconds) produces the most moderate yet long-burning flames. If the alcohol gets too hot, the vapors can rise to dangerous heights, causing flare-ups. But if the alcohol is too cold, there won’t be enough vapors to light at all. If a flare-up should occur, simply slide the lid over the top of the pan, coming in from the side of, rather than over, the flames to squelch them. Let the alcohol cool down before starting again.
The potency of the alcohol can be diminished as it becomes incorporated into other ingredients. If you have trouble getting the liquor to ignite, you could ignite it in a separate small skillet; once the flame has burned off, add the reduced alcohol to the remaining ingredients.
1 When ready to flambé, remove saucepan or skillet from heat, add liquor,and let liquor warm for a few seconds.
2 Using long fireplace match or wooden skewer, fully extend your arm andgently wave flame over pan until liquor ignites.
3 Shake pan gently to distribute flames; keep shaking until flamessubside.
4 Let burn until flames subside on their own. Cover skillet for 15 seconds toensure flame is extinguished.
5 If a flare-up should occur, slide lid over top of pan (coming in from side of, rather than over, flames) to put out fire quickly. Let alcohol cool down before starting again.