Recipes engineered for perfection—what exactly does that mean? We take you inside Cook’s Illustrated’s science experiments.
A flambé is the ignition of alcohol vapors that lie above a pan after you’ve added booze to a hot dish, and produces a reaction that generates significant amounts of heat. Lighting food on fire and then serving it up for dessert never fails to impress a captivated dinner-party audience. But does it actually do anything to affect the flavor of the food, or is it merely a performance?
The sauce for Crêpes Suzette requires flambéing, so we whipped up a batch and poured the cognac into the hot pan and lit it on fire. Using an infrared thermometer, we discovered that the temperature at the surface of the pan quickly climbed past 500 degrees. Curious to know whether the high heat removed all of the alcohol content, we sent samples of the flambéed cognac to a food lab for alcohol analysis. Tests revealed that the flambé removed 79% of the alcohol, and simmering the sauce afterwards removed all of the remaining booze. So now we knew the flambé was removing the buzz from the dish, but what effect was the extreme heat having on flavor?
Reactions involving sugar, such as caramelization and browning, occur at temperatures higher than 300 degrees. A simmered cognac maintains a steady temperature of about 180 degrees at its surface and doesn’t change much in flavor (other than getting rid of the alcohol content). When we tasted our flambéed cognac it was far deeper and richer in flavor than its simmered counterpart.
The mystery was solved: a flambéed sauce burns off most of its alcohol and gains flavor. The final result was a sauce with a hint of alcohol and a great depth of flavor (and yes, you also get an impressive dinner-party trick out of it as well).
MAKE IT NOW: Our recipe for Crêpes Suzette is free through March 6, 2013.
For more hot reactions, take a look at this video we posted last week on how to flambé bananas for Bananas Foster.