How to Choose and Use Torch for Crème Brûlée
In the kitchen, a clock is ticking its countdown to that absolutely final, final deadline you have to meet so that your meal is ready at the scheduled time. You’ve still got the crème brûlée to finish. You actually see the minute hand on the clock move forward a notch. Pressure mounts. It’s time to bring in the heavy artillery, it’s time to bring in the crème brûlée torch. The torch is used for the caramelizing stage of making crème brûlée: a stage which requires good judgement and a steady hand.
There is, of course, a risk element when a combination of a time-pressured cook, gas and naked flames collide but the more reputable kitchen torches come equipped with features which ensure that safety is not compromised. Let’s have a look at the features which a good crème brûlée torch should have as standard and which should be incorporated into your mental checklist when buying.
What to look for
Fuel: There are three types of fuel used to power kitchen torches – Butane, Propane or methylacetylene-propadeine (MAPP). Butane represents the best choice for crème brûlée as it reaches a lower temperature – about 2,500°F (about 1,400°C) – but a temperature which is still easily hot enough for the caramelizing process and best suited for smaller surface areas. To put that temperature in context, a gas grill will rarely exceed 550°F.
Propane reaches a higher temperature and MAPP higher still. The fuel to be avoided for our purposes is acetylene which is popular with jewelry-makers but far too strong for our requirements.
Flame: The torch you select should have an adjustable flame to provide a degree of control over the process. Most kitchen torches have this as standard.
Weight: This might not seem a deal-breaker since caramelizing crème brûlée doesn’t take long but holding an unwieldly device while doing so is to be avoided. Somewhere between 10-12 ounces is an ideal weight.
Fuel Capacity: As mentioned, the process isn’t time-consuming but you do need a torch which doesn’t need frequent re-fueling. Aim for one with at least 45 minutes of burn-time. The device should have a fuel gauge which allows you to monitor remaining usage time.
Safety switch: A finger guard should be present in your selection as singed fingers will be an unpleasant souvenir of your cooking experience. It’s definitely preferable to have a child-proof switch/ignition for peace of mind if the torch is left on display in the vicinity of young people.
Safety Stand: This is a nice-to-have feature which allows the user to put down the torch safely if it’s being used in short bursts. It also means that the cook can have a free hand during usage while the torch won’t topple over.
Ignition: Again, this shouldn’t seem worthy of attention but there are kitchen torches which require a trigger or button to be depressed (as in held or pushed down rather than sad or dejected!) during use. This is less than ideal as it occupies a hand which could be put to a better culinary use.
Composition: There is an element of design or style involved here but most torches will be fashioned from either aluminium or steel. It’s a question of personal preference but likely durability should also be a consideration.
Warranty/Guarantee: The manufacturer’s warranty is usually a good indicator of how effective and durable the torch will be. A lifetime warranty is, of course, desirable but it pays to read the small print: the devil is in the detail! Anything with a 90 day guarantee or less doesn’t inspire confidence.
Cost: One’s available budget will be a determinant. If crème brûlée figures is something you make regularly, the picture changes but for most, it’s probably an occasional treat. A good torch which meets all your crème brûlée requirements should be available for $50 or less and they can be used on other dishes too.
How to Use
A kitchen torch is used 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 individual ramekins until set. The final part of the recipe is creating the topping of caramelized sugar.
The process is relatively straightforward but, as mentioned above, requires good judgement and manual dexterity. The ultimate aim is to achieve that lovely crunchy topping which often looks too good to break but what lies beneath more than makes up for ruining the aesthetic effect.
We join the process at the stage when the custard mix has set and without any visible moisture. Sprinkle the allotted amount of sugar evenly over the surface of the mix dessert and fire up the torch. If you are not experienced at using kitchen torches, it’s best to try out the device until you are comfortable with the flame and how to control it.
Direct the flame towards the sugar topping, starting at a low setting and moving the device so that the surface is heated (burnt?) evenly. You will quickly find the optimum distance and angle from which the torch works best and this should be maintained until the sugar begins to bubble. As this happens, something like alchemy occurs and the topping will start to liquidize, change color and acquire a golden/reddish tint.
You’ve done it! The crème brûlée can then be allowed to cool and the sugar coating turns into a brittle, crunchy crust. From start to finish, this should take no more than a few minutes but the torch used and one’s own sense of what constitutes the perfect texture comes into play. A bit of experimentation will reward the time taken and once you’re happy with the process, it’s a case of serve, eat and savor.
The best torches for crème brûlée can be found in our buyer’s guide and they require a minimum amount of maintenance. Storage considerations revolve around keeping them in a dry, airy place without any exposure to naked flames.