Flambéing food is a process in which a chef adds liqueur to a hot sauté pan, strikes a match, and ignites the meal in a flash of flame and flavor. But as Christine Hansen ’12 points out, the fireworks are more than just an impressive visual; flambéing has the possiblity of altering the chemistry of the food.
This past summer Hansen, a viticulture and enology major minoring in food science, spent her time researching how flambéing converts alcohols into ethanol and the sensory changes that result from this process. She analyzed how different types of spirits burned off different amounts of alcohol when flambéed and whether or not the alcohol left behind affected the dish’s flavor.
Hansen explained that the science involved in this culinary technique comes from the chemical reaction caused by igniting the meal. When the alcohol is placed on a pan that has been heated above a certain temperature called its flash point, it produces a vapor. The flash point is the lowest temperature at which a liquid gives off enough vapor to ignite when exposed to a flame. The blazing spectacle that comes from igniting the alcohol vapor is the result of the partial combustion of the heated alcohol. The process burns away the liquor’s raw taste and leaves behind its unique flavor fusing it with the food.
“Flambéing is more than just heating a dish or lighting it on fire- it’s a technique of using alcohol to prepare a meal in a way that brings about a change to our sensory reception of it, a change in its taste and aroma,” Hansen explained, “Since alcohol boils at 172 °F and water boils at 212 °F, flambéing these compounds at temperatures above 300°F with something like sugar in the mix will create a chemical reaction called carmelization which is used to create delicious deserts like Banana Foster.”
Other than adding a sweet taste to deserts though being used for carmelization, which is the browning of sugar, flambéing has been used to add flavor to various meals like Flambéed pepper steak and bourbon shrimp flambé. But for her research Hansen wanted to explore this cooking technique outside of the kitchen. She decided to test the art of the flambé at a chemical level to see if the changes in flavor that it caused were chemicially discernible from heated meat.
“If there is no chemical difference and people can’t tell the difference, between igniting alcohol and simply heating it up, then why flambé?” she asked.
Hansen used vodka and bourbon for her research, “The ideal liquor for flambéing should be about 40% alcohol, so something that’s 80-proof works best. Alcohols like beer or table wine should not be used because of their low alcohol contents which if used would run the risk of not igniting,” she said.
Hansen also warned that amateur chefs should be wary before flirting with the flambé, “Using too high an alcohol content can be dangerous to the person who’s cooking. Something with a proof above 120 ignites too easily and produces intense flames that can scorch a person’s eyebrows.”
To conduct her research Hansen used a Gas Chromatography-Olfactometry to analyze the different aromas of her alcohol samples. GCO is a tool used for conducting flavor chemistry that identifies the different odorants responsible for a substance’s aroma. The GCO also characterizes those odor-activating compounds based off of their potency in extracted samples. She used this technique of odor identification to discern aroma differences in flambéed alcohol samples and the heated up alcohol samples as compared with controls. The GCO showed a chemical difference; however, she still needs to determine if people can tell the difference flambéing causes themselves.
Hansen is setting the ground work for future flambé-related research. The next steps for her work are human taste tests to be conducted here at Cornell that will determine whether or not people can discern for themselves the change in flavor.