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A cooking torch is a kitchen utensil which is designed to apply even, high heat to a variety of foods for finishing purposes. The utensil is quite useful for bakers especially, although a cooking torch can come in handy for other cooks as well. Some cooks refer to the device as a culinary torch. Many kitchen supply stores sell cooking torches along with replacement parts and fuel, and they can also be special ordered.
A basic cooking torch has a chamber filled with flammable fuel such as butane, and a nozzle with a flint or other ignition device. When the cooking torch is turned on, a small flame emerges from the nozzle. Most cooking torches are adjustable, so that the heat and size of the flame can be varied, and the flame usually runs continuously until the cooking torch is turned off.
In most cases, a cooking torch has a stand or base so that it can be stored upright when it is not in use. Upright storage prevents fuel seepage, and also ensures that counters will not be damaged by the hot tip. A safety is usually integrated as well, so that the cooking torch is not activated accidentally, and a cool grip handle ensures that the chef can hold the cooking torch comfortably. When the torch runs out of fuel, a fresh canister can be slipped in or the chamber can be filled directly.
Of all the foods finished with a cooking torch, crème brulee is probably the most famous. The high heat caramelizes the sugar on top, turning it into a crackly, flavorful crust. Other baked goods such as meringues may also be finished with a cooking torch, and some cooks use the torch to add a sheen to chocolate desserts, finish off baked Alaska, or briefly heat the surface of other sweets and pastries. Heat finishing is crucial to many desserts, making a cooking torch a vital tool for people who work in dessert.
There are also savory uses for a cooking torch. It can be used to briefly brown meats and roasts, melt the cheese on soups and gratins, or add a quick finish to casseroles and other baked dishes. A cooking torch also produces superb blackened vegetables, and can be used to briefly wilt vegetables for salads and other dishes.
As with any heat producing kitchen tool, a cooking torch should be handled carefully. The area around the nozzle can get quite hot, so cooks should keep this in mind when working with one. In addition, cooking torches should be kept out of the reach of children and people who are not experienced with them, to avoid unfortunate injuries.
I think most home cooks could get away with using a small welding torch, since creme brulee and baked Alaska is rarely on the menu. If someone were going into the catering business or worked in a professional kitchen, then buying a butane cooking torch might make more sense.
I took an online cooking class last year and one of the desserts we made happened to be creme brulee. My neighbor just happened to own a professional cooking torch, so I borrowed it to finish off the dish. There's definitely a learning curve, but the results were amazing. I couldn't have done that under a broiler.
I have seen chefs use the standard blow torches sold at hardware stores, but the trick is to find the smallest model available. A cooking torch is small enough for a baker or cook to control. There's a difference between caramelizing the top of a creme brulee and burning sugar to a crisp. If the cooking blow torch is too big or too heavy, the results can be disastrous.
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