One of the most mind-blowing meals I ever ate occurred when I was 12 years old. The main course and sides were good, if unmemorable, but my jaw dropped during dessert when my friend's mother whipped out a blowtorch—as in a bona fide welding torch from the hardware store—to finish off the crème brûlée.
Keep in mind that this was years before competitive cooking became a fixture on TV shows and in people's kitchens. So to watch Mrs. Doyle heft a bulky metal tool (while wearing a welding mask!) and ply a live blue flame to the tops of a French custard dish to get it to caramelize properly was something that permanently changed my idea of what cooking could be.
Doubtlessly some of you are wondering whether it's worth investing in a single tool just to get a perfectly crunchy top on your crème brûlée. However, blowtorches actually come in handy for many more cooking tasks. They're also great at searing fish and getting a wonderfully browned crust on meats and roasts. I've used one to revive less-than-crispy skin on a roast chicken. The video below shows someone adding the perfect amount of sear to a steak that's been cooked via sous vide.
They're also wonderful at toasting marshmallows, for those who want their s'mores fix (they're much more accurate than a campfire or a gas burner), toasting meringues, and roasting peppers and tomatoes to a picture-perfect state of doneness (it's also much quicker than roasting them in your oven). Refined Guy has a list of even more ways to cook with a blowtorch, including oatmeal and appetizers.
Blowtorches are also extremely fun. If you've been dragging your feet when it comes to cooking, a blowtorch will suddenly revive your spirits. There is nothing like wielding a live flame to make your senses come alive.
If you want to start playing with fire, this BonJour brushed aluminum model has a bigger flame so you can easily sear fish and meat. There is also a slightly smaller version that's designed specifically for use with crème brûlée. My personal favorite is the Iwatani Cooking Torch, which I found gave out a generous amount of heat while being easy to handle (you'll have to pick up a butane gas canister at your local hardware store, though).
Keep in mind that you don't have to buy a blowtorch that's made specifically for cooking, either. The Los Angeles Times actually recommends that you get a good ol' fashioned welding torch, the Bernzomatic. They say it has more versatility for cooking since it can give off more heat, especially when used with MAPP gas (though you can use propane, too).
Cooking with a blowtorch is easier than you might think, but it's important to take the proper safety precautions before you start wielding it.
So be sure to read the instruction manual that comes with your blowtorch before you use it. Make sure your work area is clean and safe (i.e., no oily rags or flammable foods around). It's also a good idea to keep your hair up and away when working with the torch, and to ignite the flame away from your body and the food you'll be cooking.
Then be sure to come back every Friday to learn about kitchen gadgets that will make you a better, more interesting cook. Learn about the Anti-Griddle (which freezes food instantly), figure out if carbon steel knives will work for you (or are for professional use only), and get the lowdown on how to grill on a Himalayan salt block.
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