how to light brandy on fire? - having trouble making coq au vin
I tried to make Julia Child's coq au vin last night. While it turned out AMAZING, I was frustrated by not being able to get the brandy to light on fire. Is there a special trick to lighting liquor on fire? Julia asks you to pour brandy into your chicken-filled casserole and then light it, which didn't work, and then I tried to light it in a ladle, which didn't work. Each time, the match just sort of sizzled and burnt out.
I work at an excellent french restaurant, and as you can imagine quite a lot of flambée-ing happens there - not just coq au vin but also for prawns, scallops, livers etc etc.
We just pour a glug of it straight from the bottle into the pan, being very very quick about it so as the stream does not light. If it doesn't ignite by itself, we just tilt the edge of the pan toward the roaring flame so it does. I can do this at home with ease, if I'm using a big burner.
When you flame your coq au vin, you should not have that much chicken in the pan that you are browning before you pour in your brandy, so it won't take long for it to heat up enough to light off the burner.
You don't actually light the brandy. You light the vapors rising from it, and you get more of that vapor when the brandy is warmed.
Try holding the match just above the brandy.
I usually put it into a large stainless steel spoon which I lay on top of the food until it's warmed. Then a match on top ignites right away and you can pour the "burning" brandy right into the dish.
It's actually a fairly cool flame. You can pour it over your hand and not be burned.
Perhaps the biggest mistake flambe novices make is dumping the booze into the food. It is diluted and the vapors don't rise as they should, even if you tip the pan, especially if there's a lot of liquid.
That's why I use the spoon to warm the liquor. Then once I light it, it can be poured over the surface of the food. Makes great flames all over the top.
I learned this as a kid watching the waiters at restaurants in New Orleans where they love to flambe things tableside. They even serve Cafe Brulot, flaming coffee!
Actually, flambeing creates more flavor compounds than just cooking off the alcohol does. From Cooks Illustrated:
"A flambé looks impressive and is easy enough to execute, but we wondered if it really improves the flavor of a sauce and, if so, why. Blind taste tests quickly revealed that flambéing the sauce for steak Diane did indeed improve its flavor; a flamed sauce was richer and sweeter than a sauce that had not been ignited. To get a handle on why it was better, we looked into the scientific principles involved. ..."
CI goes on to explain that essentially the temperature of the flaming brandy gets really high, about 500 deg, which is sufficient for caramelization and the Maillard reaction, while simmering, of course, never gets much above the boiling point of the sauce, about the same as the boiling point of water.
That doesn't make sense.
The brandy doesn't burn - it has a high water content. The alcohol vapors catch fire.
Any sugars that would caramelize are left in the brandy which is predominately water and can't get much above 212 degrees no matter how much you heat it. Same principle as using a bain marie in a hot oven or a double boiler.
This is nowhere near 500 degrees.
I've seen waiters at Antoine's in New Orleans spread the flaming vapors over the table linens when they flambeed Cafe Brulot in a dimmed dining room. Dramatic, but no fire department necessary. The linens were completely unscathed.
I've even run the flames over my hand to amuse my kids.
That wouldn't be possible at 500 degrees.
From David Brooks, NYT, relating the details of a dinner at Antoine's:
< And with it came coffee, but not just any coffee. It was called "devil's brew." A copper bowl was put in the middle of the table with some roiling mixture of brandy-ish spirits inside. Coffee was poured in and the concoction set aflame.
The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:
"Is it decaf?" >
A successful flambe requires the right temperature, the right alcohol content and the right technique. Rather than go into it in detail, here's a link that (IMO) is about the best outline I've seen on the subject.
Liquor poured into a sauce that's about 180 degrees will usually come up to temperature (130 degrees for the liquor) soon enough so that you don't need to actually measure temperatures. One thing that is often neglected in instructions for flambe is NEVER pour from the bottle into a pan on the stove. Not unless you're hoping to burn your house down or injure yourself or someone else seriously. Always measure the amount of alcohol you intend to use at a point away from the stove and add it to your cooking vessel in only the amount you intend to use in the dish.
It sounds as if the brandy was not hot enough because it would not even ignite in the ladle. You don't want the brandy boiling, but you want it close to it, maybe 180 degrees or so before you try igniting it.
However, I have had the problem of pouring the hot brandy into a dish with a fair amount of liquid and the liquid diluted the brandy to such a degree that it wouldn't catch fire. Until you mentioned the failure with the ladle, I thought that this was the problem.
Take heart, though, most of the time, the brandy lights enthusiastically, in fact, sometimes, a little frighteningly so! Have a lid nearby that you can drop on the pot containing the flame and, of course, your usual kitchen fire extinguisher, just in case.
It needs to be warm but not hot. If it's room temp it won't really want to catch fire, but on the other hand if you pour it into too hot a pan the alcohol will burn off before you can flambee it. So I usually pull the pan off the heat, then go into the next room to fetch the brandy so that the pan cools off for 60 seconds or so and then it works like a dream.