How to Flambé

Flambéing, or igniting alcohol in a hot pan, is both a primal and thrilling experience as well a spectacular thing to behold.  While it isn’t really a necessary step in most recipes, it does add a depth of flavor which can’t otherwise be achieved.  Most recipes that call for a flambé will taste just fine if the alcohol is added and then cooked down for several minutes until the raw alcohol flavor is cooked off; however, flambéing when done correctly caramelizes the sugars in the alcohol creating a unique sweetness and adds the kiss of flame to whatever is in the pan.  There are a number of reasons why good restaurant food tastes different than what most people make at home – this technique is one of them and will get you one step closer to achieving professional results in your home kitchen.

You will need:

  1. A heavy bottomed sauté pan or skillet
  2. Alcohol
  3. A grill lighter
  4. Something to flambé

Rules for Flambéing

  1. Always keep a lid nearby to smother any flames that get too big; simply putting the lid on top of the pot should be enough to deprive the fire of oxygen and put it out very quickly.  Keep a fire extinguisher nearby (you should be doing that no matter what anyway).
  2. The higher proof the alcohol, the less you need.  1 cup of Marsala or Sherry (18-20% alcohol by volume) will create the same result as 1/4 or 1/3 of a cup of brandy or bourbon (80% alcohol by volume).  Any alcohol less than 18% by volume probably will not ignite.
  3. Flame size is directly related to (A) how hot the pan is when you add the alcohol and (B) how much stuff is in the pan when you add the alcohol, so:
    • The hotter the pan when you add the alcohol, the bigger the flames are going to be.
    • The less stuff there is in the pan when you add the alcohol, the bigger the flames are going to be.
      • Note:  The time I basically set my ceiling on fire I had a VERY hot cast iron skillet with nothing in it except some shallots and garlic and a lot of grease from a couple of steaks.  Essentially, my flambé turned into a grease fire.  It’s a mistake I’ve only made once.  To that end…
  4. Never flambé into an empty (or mostly empty) pan – make sure you’ve got some mushrooms, a steak, a few pieces of chicken, etc. in there.  The food will benefit from the flambé anyway; that’s the point.
  5. If there is too much liquid in the pan, the alcohol won’t ignite.  Therefore, process your flambé before you and anything too watery to your pot; i.e., tomatoes, stock, etc.
  6. Never pour alcohol directly out of a bottle into a hot pan – you’ll risk blowing the bottle up in your hands.  Instead, measure the alcohol out into a measuring cup or glass and have it ready to go.
  7. Be aware of any loose hair or clothing – you don’t want to have to stop, drop and roll.

The Basic Idea

Flambés are normally added to the cooking process after the sautéing of sauce ingredients but before adding the final deglazing liquid which will be reduced and turned into a pan sauce.  In other words, the basic steps in a recipe involving a flambé would look something like this:

  1. Brown Protein in Pan
  2. Remove protein and reserve
  3. Sauté more stuff in the same pan with the fat rendered from step 1 (shallots, garlic, mushrooms, etc)
  4. Add alcohol and Flambé
  5. Add more liquid; i.e., stock, wine, cream, etc.
  6. Reduce to thicken
  7. Return protein to pan, or serve protein with pan sauce drizzled on top.

The Techniques:

Technique #1 (safer, preferred): Works on any stove top; works in any pan

  1. Once you’ve got some stuff in a hot pan that you want to flambé, crank the heat up on the pan as hot as it will go for about 20 seconds, then turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting.
    • Note:  If you want to be super-duper safe, you can off the heat completely, but this will make it more difficult to turn the heat back up in step 4
  2. Ignite a grill lighter in your dominate hand, and have the alcohol ready in the other hand.
  3. Pour the alcohol into the pan and wait about 2 seconds for it to begin to vaporize.  Slowly move the lit grill lighter about 2-3 inches above the pan – remember, you’re igniting the vapors, not what’s in the pan.
  4. Once ignited, turn the heat back to medium.  Take a step back and enjoy the show.  You can shake the pan a bit if the flames seem to be only on one side of the pan, but be careful.

Technique #2:  Works on gas stove top only; works best using a fry-pan or skillet

Note:  if you’re good, you can use a sauté pan with this method too, but the vertical sidewalls of a sauté pan make it difficult to tilt the pan towards the gas flame without spilling the contents.

  1. Once you’ve got some stuff in a hot pan that you want to flambé, crank the heat up on the pan as hot as it will go for about 10 seconds, then reduce heat to medium.  Be very careful when you add the alcohol or it may combust prematurely.  If you’re nervous about this, use technique #1.
  2. Pour the alcohol into the pan and wait about 2 seconds for it to begin to vaporize.  Gently tilt the pan away from you but towards the open flame to ignite the vapors.
  3. Take a step back and enjoy the show.  You can shake the pan a bit if the flames seem to be only on one side of the pan, but be careful.

Simple Flambé Examples

Steak with Brandy (or Bourbon) Mushroom Cream Sauce

  1. Measure out 1/4 – 1/3 cup (the amount is your call) brandy or bourbon; set aside in glass or measuring cup.
  2. Bring steaks slowly up to temp in a 200°F oven until they register 120°F using an instant read thermometer
  3. Remove steaks from oven, pat dry with paper towels, and season aggressively with salt and pepper
  4. Heat canola or vegetable oil over high heat until shimmering (about (350°F – 375°F).  Add steaks and sear, 2 – 3 minutes on each side.
  5. Remove steaks and reserve on a plate
  6. Reduce heat to medium low.  Add some shallots, garlic and mushrooms.  Crank the heat back up to maximum for 20 seconds once the mushrooms have absorbed most of the fat and liquid in the pan, then lower heat
  7. Add alcohol and Flambé
  8. Once flames have died down, add
    • 1 cup white wine and 1/4 cup heavy cream for white cream sauce, or alternatively
    • 1 cup red wine for red sauce
  9. Reduce to thicken
  10. Serve steaks with pan sauce on top.

Shrimp in Garlic-Saffron-Vermouth Reduction

  1. Mix together 2 TBSP vodka and 2/3 cup dry vermouth and set aside in glass or measuring cup
  2. Add clarified butter to a large skillet or sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat
  3. Add 12 raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 1 lb) to pan and sauté for about 1 minute
  4. Add garlic and continue to sauté, one minute more
  5. Add Vodka/Vermouth mixture and flambé
  6. Add 1-2 TBSP heavy cream and swirl around the pan.  Add pinch of saffron threads and continue to swirl pan for 2-3 more minutes to allow flavors to meld and liquid to reduce
  7. Serve

See Also:

Coq Au Riesling

Chicken Marsala

Chicken Dijonnaise

Classic Marinara Sauce

Chicken Parmesan

Steak Tartine and Brandy Cream Sauce

Chicken A La King

Hearty Beef Stew with Red Wine

Traditional Coq Au Vin

Have fun and don’t burn down the house!  Good luck!


Disclaimer

Flambéing is also potentially pretty dangerous. I’ve been doing it for years and only set the ceiling on fire once (I’m serious). If you try this technique, you, the reader, are solely responsible for trying it safely and carefully. Be sure to keep a fire extinguisher nearby, as well as a lid to smother any flames that might get out of control. All that being said, don’t let me scare you off here – done properly, flambéing is relatively safe, and the degree of safety you choose to exercise is entirely yours. Have fun!

Photo Credit

Lucas Scott Wright. Thanks buddy, great picture!

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Sam says:

    Informative article. I just started flambéing a couple of months ago, and now I feel competent at it at least.

    Just curious—how did you put your ceiling fire out?

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and that you’re trying new techniques in the kitchen. If I can be a resource for you in any way please let me know.

      To answer your question: Thankfully it basically went out on its own before it turned into a full-blown conflagration… a few bits of dust on the ceiling smoldered for a few seconds and I was able to wipe the residue off with a wet rag, so no harm no foul – but I was definitely reaching for the fire extinguisher under my sink! So perhaps to say that I set my ceiling on fire is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was damn close and a bit of a scary moment. But hey, that’s how we learn!

      Like

  2. Sam says:

    Thanks for the info. That’s really scary about the fire. I’m glad it went out on its own, but hopefully the experience itself didn’t scar you too badly. 🙂 At least what you’ve learned will no doubt stick with you forever.

    I’ve been doing lots of flambéing experiments. Recently I’ve flambéed fish cakes, a fried egg, asparagus, polenta, and sautéed apples. The only one that didn’t taste good was the polenta. 🙂 I’ve also experimented with seeing if lower-proof alcohol will ignite. Using an empty pan, I got some crème de cassis to ignite for about 3 seconds, and even got some pink moscato to ignite, but only for about half a second. However, if there had been other stuff in the pan too, I doubt the latter two alcohols would have ignited unless you used a ton of them.

    Anyway, interesting stuff here, and thanks for the helpful info.

    Liked by 1 person

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