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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.