Different dishes require a diverse array of skills from a cook. Any recipe featuring chopped vegetables calls for deftness in deploying sharp knives, making a soufflé is a test of precise timing and measurement but one of the more unusual culinary techniques is needed in the production of a crème brûlée: how to use a culinary torch .
This particular talent is needed towards the end of the cooking process when the mix of cream, vanilla, and egg has been transformed into that delicious smooth blend and chilled in their ramekins until set. The final part of the recipe is creating the topping of caramelized sugar.
The Topping Is…
The origin of the now-familiar caramelized topping to a crème brûlée is a source of dispute with French, Catalan, and English claim to be the source of inspiration for a thin crust lying on top of the custard-like dessert. We will take the diplomatic approach, avoid definitive accreditation, accept that the sugary crust is an integral part of the dish, and concentrate on how to best achieve it.
Is There an Alternative to Using a Torch?
Yes, there is. The individual crème brûlées can be placed under a hot grill (or broiler) and heated until the sugar melts and bubbles. The risk involved in utilizing this method is to avoid over-heating the sugar to the stage where it is actually burnt and unappetizing. “Burnt cream” may be the precise translation of crème brûlée but the term is figurative rather than literal.
The frequent checking required to avoid over-heating the sugar during this stage could decelerate the process leading to an unsatisfactory culinary conclusion. Another method is to flambé the dish by adding rum or brandy and setting fire to it but we do not endorse this method as it strays from the classic time-honored ingredients.
But the preferred method is to use a culinary (or kitchen) torch as it is easier to control, providing a more consistent topping and faster.
What Type of Torch Is Recommended?
Firstly, ensure that the torch in use is one with which you are comfortable and is fit for purpose (See our 10 Best Torches for Crème Brûlée for guidance). There are some standard safety features in all reputable culinary torches – a child-proof lock, a finger guard to avoid ending up with singed digits, and a robust ignition button or switch. It must be borne in mind that kitchen torches are potentially dangerous if not used correctly and a quick check should be carried out to ensure that the cooking area is free from any flammable materials which could be ignited by a naked flame.
Most kitchen torches are fueled by butane gas and have an inbuilt tank that is filled from a butane canister (available from hardware stores) whereas some torches are fired by fitting the torch itself directly to the butane canister. Propane gas or methylacetylene-propidine (MAPP) gas represent the alternatives to butane and butane is preferred here because it reaches a lower temperature (up to about 2,500°F or 1,400°C); perfectly adequate for the crème brûlée caramelizing process.
How to Use a Crème Brûlée Torch
Let’s proceed to the fun bit!
Assumptions: The custard has to be set in a refrigerator and to be free of condensation or moisture. Sprinkle the sugar evenly across the surface of the dessert and ignite the torch. It’s advisable to experiment a little before applying the torch to the dessert so that you are comfortable with the strength and length of the flame. All reputable torches will have a dial or knob or switch which allows the user to control and adjust the flame. There is no precise distance at which the torch should be positioned as the strength and consistency of the flame will vary. It is best to start at a low heat and direct the flame so that it rotates around the entire surface thereby preventing the sugar from burning.
What you are aiming for is to see the sugar begin to bubble and slowly change color to a caramel golden hue as it liquidizes slightly. Once this consistency has been reached around the entire surface, the crème brûlée can then be allowed to cool at which stage the sugar will have formed a brittle crust.
The time taken for this procedure is not possible to accurately predict and personal preference also enters the equation but if the sugar goes beyond that caramel golden color, then it is time to call a halt. Being left with a crust that is slightly underdone is preferable than overdone as the custard itself should not be impacted by the caramelization. Cooks should not rush the process, but it should not take long for each ramekin to receive the requisite topping.
Once this is complete, the dish can be served soon after but at least allow the layer of caramelized sugar to form into a crunchy shell which requires being cracked with a spoon before reaching the custard.
Things to Be Aware Of
Kitchen torches are not consistent with regard to the capacity of their gas canister/tank. There should be sufficient gas to allow the torch to burn for at least 30 minutes. Most good torches will continue operating for up to an hour but the manufacturers’ instructions will provide a guide to how much time you should expect. A fuel gauge is pretty much a standard feature of all kitchen torches and this provides the comfort of knowing that the flame will not suddenly expire half-way through the caramelization.
There are a number of types of ignition or starter. A simple press of a button will suffice for most torches although some do require squeezing a trigger and may need this action to be continued for the duration of the process. Ideally, the torch will have a switch that can be set to ensure a constant flame and then deactivated when the job is complete.
Most people will enjoy the frisson of danger and excitement provided by using a torch to apply the finishing touch to this tasty dish. The process will become second nature to anybody who follows the guidelines above and who equips themselves with a safe and efficient kitchen torch. Bon appetit!