First off, happy new year to all! I've been having a relaxing time at home over the holidays, and the break has been a good chance to try out some new things in the kitchen, including making crepes. It was Christmas morning, and we had a bunch of oranges in the house along with a nip of Grand Marnier, so I thought why not try Crepes Suzette? I've never actually eaten Crepes Suzette, but know of it as a classic recipe that utilizes flambé. The recipe I used was this one by Bobby Flay, that did not include any flambéing. An alternative recipe by Nigella Lawson states to "Warm the orange liqueur of your choice in the emptied but still syrupy saucepan. When the crepes are hot in the orange sauce, pour over the liqueur and set light to the pan to flambé them." (She also says to use store-bought crepes, so I don't know how much to trust this particular recipe.)
So what does flambéing accomplish? Is it even necessary? I had heard somewhere that it is simply for show, and nothing more. Others claim that the flames consume any alcohol in the sauce, thus changing its flavor--and then some. Wikipedia states: "Because alcohol boils at 78°C, water boils at 100°C and sugar caramelizes at 160°C, ignition of all these ingredients combined results in a complex chemical reaction, especially as the surface of the burning alcohol exceeds 240°C."
But that logic is assuming that the entire dish (or at least the surface of the food) is engulfed in flames during the process. If the flames are only above the food, this whole reaction won't happen (although some alcohol may be consumed in vapor form). This book explains that, in order to achieve a proper flambé, one needs to heat the liquor mixture to a temperature above the flash point, which is "the lowest temperature at which the liquid gives off enough vapor to ignite on exposure to a flame." Why vapor? Ethanol is more easily ignited in vapor form than in liquid form (even fuel is burned in vapor form rather than liquid). A cold liquor will not ignite because there is not enough vapor, which is why flambé recipes require heating of the liquor beforehand. Heat it above the flash point (for a 50-50 mixture of water and alcohol, it would be 75°F), and the vapors will ignite when a match is brought close to the pan.
So if only the vapors above the pan burn, doesn't it mean that the supposed caramelization of flavors doesn't really happen at all? The most that would happen, I would think, is that perhaps more of the alcohol would be consumed than if you simply simmered the liquor mixture. However, I must admit I have never actually flambéd anything, so anyone who has more experience cooking or tasting flambé dishes, give me your qualitative (or quantitative) opinions on whether it does more for your dish than create a fancy show!