Few things in life are as exciting and magical as fire. And setting things on fire while cooking? Well, now you're speaking my language. I'm not talking about grilling, though I do love some outdoor cooking. No, I'm talking about the most badass trick in any cook's arsenal: the flambé.
Flambé is a French word that means "flame," and it refers to the wonderful culinary act of adding alcohol to your food and lighting it on fire. What's not to like?
Aside from being a great way to add flavor to your food (more on that later), flambéing is the ultimate way to impress your friends. Fire is inherently awe-inspiring, and having control over fire where it's not expected will earn you many high fives and style points from your peers. And all you need is some booze and a lighter.
However, flambéing accomplishes a lot more than just a badass reputation for you. By burning off the alcohol, you allow the flavor of the booze to be infused into your food without having to boil it. For instance, if you add a half a cup of tequila to a pan of shrimp as I did in the photos below, and then cook off the alcohol without a flambé, the shrimp will absorb a great amount of liquid, which gives them a poor consistency (and a raw alcohol flavor). A flambé leaves the tequila taste behind, but gets rid of the liquid. A flambé also brings the fire to the top of the dish, which increases the temperature at the surface of your food, and can give it a light sear.
While your food is cooking, add alcohol (anywhere from a few tablespoons to a cup). You'll want to use a common spirit that's in the 80 proof range, such as rum or tequila (cognac is my preferred choice). Booze that's low in alcohol content (such as beer or wine) won't be able to ignite, while something too strong (such as 151 proof) runs the risk of combusting.
It's important to be careful at this stage; as a Serious Eats reader notes, you can explode your bottle of booze if you're not careful (a quick refresher: lighting your food on fire is cool—accidentally blowing up a bottle in the kitchen is not). The best way to avoid this is to remove your pan from the heat before adding the alcohol, or pour the booze into a measuring cup before adding it.
You can't simply add fire to your alcohol and expect a perfect flame to arise. Your booze has to first reach an ignitable temperature. Heat your pan of food and alcohol until the booze bubbles, and then light it on fire with a lighter or a match. (Editor's note: until you get experienced, you might want to use a long match or a piece of spaghetti.)
As soon as the flame is within an inch of the booze, your flambé will take over. As such, you need to add the fire from the edge of the pan, or else the flame up will burn your hand. To make this easier, you can tilt the pan so that all of the alcohol is in a concentrated pool.
The flame will last until there's no more alcohol left; depending on how much booze you added, the flambé can last for as short as a few seconds, or as long as a minute. If you don't want to burn off all of the alcohol, or the open flame is making you nervous, you can put out the fire anytime by adding a lid, or by simply blowing it out.
If you're flambéing desserts, such as bananas foster, you may want to keep more of the liquor around for an extra kick. You can do this by extinguishing the flame halfway through the flambé, and then immediately removing the food from the heat.
If you want to really impress your friends, you can flambé your food directly at the table. But to do this you'll need preheated booze, so microwave a bowl of your spirit for 30-45 seconds before adding it.
I recommend trying your first flambé alone before you show it off to your friends. If you're anything like me, you'll jump a few feet in the air and let out quick a loud exclamation the first time the fire erupts, which is far less embarrassing when you're alone.
Also, know how to put out a fire in case of an emergency.