One of the most identifiable skills of classic cookery is the art of the flambé. Picture a busy and bustling kitchen, punctuated by fireballs of purple-yellow flames leaping from pans rattled by white-jacketed chefs. Adding alcohol can introduce complex flavours and aromas to a dish, but too much alcohol can be unpleasant and overwhelm other delicate flavours. For that reason, in cookery we are often taught to flambé – to “burn off” the pungent taint of raw alcohol. But how well does it really work?
To flambé, a strong alcohol (usually higher than 20% alcohol per volume) is added to a pan of sauteing ingredients and ignited with an open flame. While flambéing is often used tableside for dramatic effect, the process does have an effect on flavour. The extremely high temperature of the alcohol flame (about 1100C) leaves a very light singed taste to flambéd ingredients within the flame, and the reactions of the burning alcohol with other ingredients can create additional complex flavours and aromas. This process of flambéing also burns off some of the added alcohol to take the edge off the strong and sometimes unpleasant alcohol ‘burn’ found in some strongly alcoholic dishes.
However, the processes of flambéing does not remove all of the alcohol. In fact, a short flambé will still leave around 75% of the added alcohol in the finished product. Even after simmering for an hour, about 25% of the alcohol still remains, and after 2 hours that proportion drops to about 10%.
Considering the relatively small amounts of alcohol added to foods, and the portions of those dishes we eat, the final alcohol content of dishes is not usually a problem. Even a whole bottle of 14% alcohol wine added to a Coq au Vin will first dilute to about 7% amongst the other ingredients, then and after cooking for a hour will result in a dish of only about 2% alcohol. Divided amongst perhaps 4 people, the final amount of alcohol consumed by the diner is quite small. However, those with alcohol sensitivity might want to hold back on that extra serve of a flambéd Bananas Foster, as each plate would contain alcohol from rum roughly equivalent to a swig of a cheeky dacquiri.