Playing with Fire

May 21, 2007: In this column we reported on the BonJour Professional Culinary Torch. Since then, there have been reports of butane fuel leakage near the nozzle, and the company is recalling the product.

Legend has it that crème brûlée was invented back in the 1600s in either England or France. Supposedly, cooks used a primitive salamander (a type of broiler) that was nothing more than an iron disc on a long stick, stuck in a fireplace to heat and then held over sugar to create the crackly crust.

When I was at the Cordon Bleu in Paris a few years ago, I used essentially the same iron-on-a-stick tool, but instead of an open fire, the heat source was electricity, carried by a frightening frayed, cloth-covered electric cord. (The school prides itself on teaching classic French cuisine, which instructors sometimes equate with using quaint, archaic cooking equipment.)

These days, the best tool to create glasslike sugar or super-heat the outside of something without cooking the inside (think blackened peppers or crisped fish skin) is a kitchen blowtorch, or torch, for short. Many pro kitchens favor the big blue canistered BernzOmatic. It’s a propane-powered implement borrowed from the plumbing trade, where it’s primarily used for soldering pipes. In most home kitchens, you’re more likely to find smaller, sleeker mini–butane torches made by BonJour, which sells them through Williams-Sonoma, Bed Bath & Beyond, and other dealers.

Good news for chefs everywhere: BernzOmatic recently began selling the compact Powercell, which is marketed as delivering all the power in half the size. Meanwhile, BonJour now offers a sleek model with added features, including a kidproof safety lock.

I tested BernzOmatic and BonJour torches to make a crackled sugar top on crème brûlée, a salted caramel crust on frozen gianduia mousse, a blackened red bell pepper, and crisped salmon skin. The frozen mousse presented a special challenge: As with a baked Alaska, the inside has to remain cold while the surface gets torched.

A good torch should be easy to light—and stay lit during use. It should produce an intense, concentrated, but controllable flame, and should be easy to handle and store.

Professional Chef’s Torch (53341)
By BonJour, $29.99

The BonJour Professional Chef’s Torch is small and stylish, with a slim silver metal body and black plastic head, accented with red buttons and switches. It looks good enough to pass around the table so that your guests can regenerate a crunch on their crèmes brûlées.

Lighting the torch is a two-handed operation—you have to pull down a lock on the back of the head with one thumb while pushing the big red button with the other. To keep the flame lit, you hold the button down or lock it with the switch on the left. The slide on the right adjusts the flame, so that you get more or less heat. When making the crust on a crème brûlée, hold the torch about an inch from the custard, so that the flame just licks the sugar, until it sizzles to a caramel crackle.

The BonJour’s sleek design makes wielding a tiny flame thrower as routine as holding a lighter. At a dinner party I gave, a few of my torch-newbie friends found it unintimidating. I was a bit impatient at the length of time it took to create a crust on the crème brûlée, blacken the peel of a red pepper, and crisp the skin on a salmon fillet (a minute each). However, the BonJour’s gentle flame was an asset when it came to the delicate frozen mousse: The little flame browned a salted caramel crust without melting the inside.

It requires patience, but the BonJour torch is a good choice for jobs that need a light hand.

Powercell Trigger Start Torch Kit (TSPC8KC)
By BernzOmatic, $29.97

Shipping companies are understandably a little squirrelly about transporting hazmats like propane, but BernzOmatic’s new Powercell is fortunately often sold in the plumbing section of stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.

The torch is fueled by a shaving-cream-sized can of propane. On the old model you had to ignite the brass head with a lighter, but now you can simply press a button that ignites a plastic-housed trigger-start: presto, fire! The big gas-adjuster knob on the back of the head, which dims or increases the flame, stays cool to the touch.

The Powercell performs just as powerfully as the older models still used in many pro kitchens. It easily bubbled sugar into a golden shimmer on the crème brûlée in about 30 seconds. Applying the flame to the pepper’s skin was like effortlessly airbrushing black over red. The salmon skin quickly smoked and crisped, while the flesh stayed rare. However, on the frozen mousse I had to carefully adjust the powerful flame and the angle at which it hit the surface, so that it didn’t melt everything into a sweet soup. This was a bit tricky.

Ultimately, I feel the BernzOmatic is still the best, most powerful kitchen torch, and this newer model is easier to handle and safer to store than older versions. But when it comes to delicate jobs, the gentle BonJour is your friend. Why not buy both? You can never have too many flaming objects at your disposal.