November 29, 2018
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Everyone Should Own a Cooking Torch
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A kitchen flamethrower is more than just a gimmicky gadget. It’s actually—dare I say—practical.

I’ve abandoned all childhood safety rules in the kitchen and can confidently say I play with fire. With a cooking torch, naturally.

Equipping yourself with a canister of butane and handheld torch may sound like an at-home chemistry experiment about to go terribly wrong, but there are some pretty smart tricks your torch can help you with, perhaps most obviously: make a killer crème brûlée. The science is pretty simple. Once a sprinkling of sugar gets blasted with heat, the loose crystals transform into an even layer of caramelized sugar. A gentle tap with your spoon breaks the hardened, glassy top, leaving you with a spoonful of creamy custard quivering beneath a cap of deep, nutty sweetness. Not to mention it’s a surefire way (pun alert) to impress your dinner-party guests.

But a torch is hardly a one-trick pony named Brûlée. A cooking torch has practical, everyday uses too. For breakfast, you can transform a plain lumpy bowl of oatmeal with a few slices of caramelized bananas—just top the bananas with sugar and hit them with the fire for 10 seconds or so. An already creamy, luscious mug of matcha hot chocolate improves with a torched marshmallow, blackened on the outside and gooey on the inside just like the ones at summer camp.

For a 1950s throwback, make a Baked Alaska, a showstopping glory with swirls of browned and toasted meringue. For dinner, skip the messy outdoor grill and blister tomato and pepper skins with a blast of butane instead. If you have access to sushi-grade raw salmon, make some nigiri with it and char the top. Or finish off a steak with the torch in place of a traditional cast-iron searing.

The beauty of the cooking torch is that it brings out smoky and nutty flavors we’d otherwise depend on grills and broilers to do in a more compact body. Most home oven broilers max out at 500°F, but the flame of a torch can reach nearly 3,000°F, leaving you with crackly sugar crusts and perfectly charred skins without turning on any additional appliances. And with most models priced between $10 and $30, you’re not spending a whole lot.

But practicality aside, cooking with a butane-powered torch is a badass move, which is honestly its biggest appeal. I may not fully understand the intricacies of Maillard reactions or caramelization on a molecular level, but I do know that sugar plus high temperature equals browning, which is about all you need to use a cooking torch. With the press of a button, you’ll see the tips of a powerful blue flame dance across the surface, brûléeing French toasts or lemon tarts right before your eyes.

French Toast Crunch

French Toast Crunch

4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • ¼ cup whole chamomile buds or 2 or 3 chamomile tea bags
  • 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk, or to taste
  • 6-8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 (1-inch) thick slices sturdy white bakery bread (such as brioche or pain de mie)
  • ½ cup sugar

From Anthony Myint

One night at the original Mission Street Food pop-up restaurant in San Francisco, faced with the demands of coming up with a new dessert each night with scant time and space, Anthony Myint served milk toast. But he gave it a little flash by caramelizing a buttery, sugary crust onto slices of brioche and serving them in warm, chamomile-scented cream.

You can’t eat this and not be happy. A loud, unflinching bite of the broiled, sugared toast is a joy matched only by the crack of a spoon breaking through the glassy top of a crème brûlée. The airy toast will have drunk up the warm, milky puddle like a tres leches cake while the candied top floats above it, keeping its crunch pristine.

When would you serve it, besides a quiet moment alone? A weeknight dinner party. A brunch. Valentine’s Day. An afternoon snack for your children, if you don’t want your children to ever eat plain toast again.

In his Mission Street Food cookbook, Myint includes a chart of 13 twists on French Toast Crunch, from matcha to baklava. You can vary the flavors endlessly, but this is comfort food, so you can also just revel in keeping it simple.

  1. In a small saucepan, warm the half-and-half over medium heat until small bubbles appear at the edges and it’s almost at a simmer. Remove from the heat and stir in the chamomile. Cover and steep for 10 minutes, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve set over a bowl. Stir in the tablespoon of condensed milk, taste, then add more if you like. (Save the rest of the can for sweetening ice coffee.) Keep warm.
  2. Generously butter one side of each slice of bread, all the way to the edges, using as much as 2 tablespoons per slice. Broil the buttered bread on both sides, starting buttered side up, until the edges are lightly browned—watch it closely.
  3. Spread the sugar in a shallow dish and dip the buttered side of each piece of toast in the sugar, then sprinkle on a little more sugar to make sure it’s evenly coated. Broil the toast again, sugared side up, just till the toast is well browned and crackly, again watching closely so that it doesn’t burn. (Alternatively, use a kitchen torch to brûlée the sugared toast on a flameproof rack set over a baking sheet. Holding the torch nozzle 2 to 3 inches [5 to 7.5cm] above the toast, move it slowly across the surface of the bread slices. Carefully tip the pan as needed to coax melted sugar toward unmelted sugar. Avoid torching the edges—uncovered bread could ignite.)
  4. To serve, spoon the warm milk into 4 shallow bowls, then place a piece of brûléed toast in each bowl. Serve immediately with spoons.

Tatiana Bautista

Tatiana Bautista is a freelance writer based in New York.

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