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Flambé, a French term meaning “flamed,” is a very special culinary procedure in which alcohol is added during the cooking process in order to create fire within a pot or pan. The flames are a result of the combustion of alcohol. Unless a great deal of alcohol is added to the pan, the combustion should last only for a moment. The flames are extinguished when all of the alcohol has been consumed or “burned off.” Bananas Foster is a dish that is often made using flambé techniques.
When a flambé is created correctly, it creates a beautiful and dramatic culinary scene. Some chefs who fancy flambé add a dash of cinnamon when appropriate as the spice also burns beautifully.
Although flambé is often utilized as a visual effect and conducted tableside, it creates much more than a dramatic scene. Igniting a sauce or dish with alcohol actually alters the chemistry within the food. Some food critics believe that it takes a very sophisticated palate to discern the difference between a dish that has been flambéed and one that has not.
Depending on the chef’s discernment and the quality of the restaurant, flambé dishes can be created with a number of different kinds of alcohol. Although beer and wine can add wonderful flavor elements to sauces, marinades, and batters, they do not contain enough alcohol to create a flambé. High proof alcohol, on the other hand, is considered by most high-end restaurants to be too high in alcohol. High proof alcohol could create an out of control fire that might lead to a safety hazard, not to mention a ruined meal. Most chefs that enjoy cooking with flambé are fond of working with liqueurs such as cognac and rum.
While flambé is a fun and beautiful way to add subtle flavor to a dish, it must be done very carefully and in controlled locations. If you decide to attempt a flambé at home, be sure to remove your pan from the burner before adding any alcohol. Otherwise, the alcohol might splash into the flames below and create a fire on your stovetop. Also, if you must manually light the alcohol, be sure to use a long match in order to protect the skin on your hands and arms. It is recommended to learn how to flambé from a professional before attempting this culinary feat on your own.
The high heat of burning alcohol created above the sauce by flambeing, caramelizes the sugars and adds richness and sweetness to the sauce.
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