Fire it up

Anjali Jhangiani
Thursday, 28 June 2018

Chef Sahil Sabhlok, executive chef, The Westin Pune, tells us about the risky yet theatrical technique of flamb

There is a certain amount of drama brought by fire — be it throwing flames out of your guitar on stage, or using a flamed prop in your dance routine. Along the same line of thought exists the technique of flambé. To know more about why and how to set certain dishes and beverages on fire, we speak to Sahil Sabhlok, executive chef, The Westin Pune, Koregaon Park. 

“We serve a lot of flambé desserts. We also have flambé fruits. In House of Medici, we have a few cocktails that are flambéd. There definitely is a certain amount of theatrics that comes with the flames, but this process also has a distinct effect on the flavour of food. This is done to give your food a subtle flavour of liqueur, minus its potency. When you set the alcohol on fire before pouring it over the  dish, you’re reducing its potency, and what’s left is the distinct flavour of the liqueur,” says Sabhlok.

He points out that one needs to be absolutely confident about what liqueur one should use with what dish. This combination can be a successful one only if the flavour of the liqueur complements the taste of the dish. To figure out which liqueur to use for which dish, you have to do some flavour profiling — which, in other words, is just trial and error. 

First things first, safety. You don’t want to set your house on fire just to try flambéing a couple of crepes. In fact, Sabhlok feels that if you’re a first-timer with the technique, you shouldn’t try it in your home kitchen. “Nowadays, there are so many cooking classes and workshops available at various restaurants where chefs demonstrate these processes. If you’re interested, you should opt for one of these workshops and try it there first. Domestic kitchens are not equipped with fire extinguishers, and this process is a little risky, so it’s best if you try it out in a commercial kitchen,” he says. 

You have to be confidently correct about the amount of liqueur and the amount of time you let it burn before putting it on your dish. “If you let the alcohol burn for too long, and then pour it on something savoury, the chances of ending up with a charred flavour are pretty high. Even if it’s a dessert, the taste may go haywire. You are supposed to burn the liqueur enough to get rid of the volatile alcohol but retain the flavour so that it can enhance the taste of the dish,” says Sabhlok. 

You must be cautious at every step of this technique because it requires the use of highly inflammable liqueur which can go out of hand in a momentary slip. Alcohol with higher potency like cognac, rum, and brandy are often used for flambéing, but in some cuisines even those liqueurs with low potency are used. 

Chefs swear by the fact that the technique is used to impart a distinct flavour of the liqueur to the dish, and the drama that comes with it is just a bonus. But then, why not just marinate your ingredients in the liqueur instead of performing this risky act with fire? 

“Alcohol is used to marinate food when you want a strong taste of it. It seeps inside well and works as a tenderiser if you’re marinating meat. You opt for flambé when you want your dish to have a hint, a slight taste of the liqueur, not a strong overpowering one. Some of our Chinese dishes are flambéd with Chinese wine. In fact, in our Indian fine-dine restaurant, we have a variety of lamb kebabs that are flambéd with rum before it is served to the guests, just for an extra zing,” says Sabhlok. 

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