Fire is awesome, especially if it isn’t doing anything destructive. Even though our ancestors spent hours cooking their food over open fires, we’ve all but eliminated the need for actual flames in the modern kitchen. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a gas range, you probably never even see a flicker while you’re “grilling” things on the stovetop. As such, we’re missing out on all of the delicious flavor profiles that come from food making direct contact with fire, or indirect contact from smoke.
Gone are those perfectly smoky charred bits of fat around the edge of a steak, at least one cooked indoors. Fortunately, you can bring fire into your kitchen without having to deal with the soot and associated hazards with open fire pits. The simple kitchen torch, a necessity in any restaurant kitchen, can open you up to an entirely new, totally charred world. If you don’t already own a torch, pick one up on Amazon for less than 30 bucks, and get started setting stuff on fire.
If you’re using a broiler, sous vide, or stovetop to cook a good hunk of meat, a little fire can only make it better. An uneven surface can make it impossible to get a good, even sear on a cut of ribeye or flank steak, especially if it’s bone-in. Instead of leaving those unsightly grey areas, whip out the kitchen torch and finish ‘em off to a perfect sear. A few seconds of torch on the surface can make the difference between a “blah” and badass steak.
That characteristic crunch on top of a crème brûlée is a large part of what makes that classic dessert so delicious, and a similar layer of caramelized sugar can do a lot to improve your own desserts at home. Sprinkle a fine layer of sugar over fruit-topped cakes and pies, then burn with a torch for a few seconds. The heat will caramelize the fructose and the sucrose, giving you added depth of flavor. You could also torch a classic brûlée grapefruit to shake up your boring breakfast routine. (Hint: for crème brûlée, it helps to thoroughly chill the ramekin of baked custard first.)
Lettuce, particularly romaine, really comes to life on a grill. Unfortunately, the plant’s delicate leaves don’t always stand up to the temperatures necessary to cook the rest of your dinner, and it isn’t always practical to fire up the grill for a simple side dish. Coat halved romaine hearts with olive oil and parmesan, then torch for a few seconds until the cheese starts to brown. The result will be much more delicious than a boring tossed salad.
The roasted red peppers sold in the grocery store are pretty gross after sitting in a jar full of water for months on end, but they sure are convenient. Making your own at home in a gas broiler is probably the best way to roast your own red peppers, but a kitchen torch will do an almost equally good job in half the time, with half the mess. Stick the pepper on the end of a grilling fork, then apply heat from the torch until the skin is blackened. Fire adds complexity to peppers of all kinds, which means that you should also char jalapenos and habaneros before mixing them into salsa and jerk marinades.
Everyone’s favorite campfire dessert is the simplest, most perfect use of a kitchen torch. If you don’t have a backyard to grill up those marshmallows, stick a few on a metal skewer and torch lightly until they’re perfectly blackened and bubbly. Add chocolate and graham crackers, and you’ve constructed the perfect dessert.
The excitement of a plate-sized ball of fire never really wears off, which is why bananas Foster will continue to be on restaurant menus until the end of time. Flambéing at home can be a little dangerous, but it is possible to safely execute this technique without burning off your eyebrows (or worse). Soak pineapple or other fruit in rum, then lightly torch until the outside is perfectly caramelized and boozy.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor and a minor pyromaniac. She enjoys setting food on fire in her kitchen in Dallas, Texas.