by Paul Adams
Finishing a dish by convecting the hell out of it with a blowtorch is so primally satisfying — thousands of degrees, high-velocity open flame, instant gratification as the food transforms in seconds before your eyes. Raw power!
But, apart from the thrill, a torch is kind of limited in what it’s actually good for. All that power makes it hard to get any but the most quick, unsubtle effects. Not to mention the issue of “torch taste,” the sort of not-quite-right aroma that can cling to torch-cooked meat. The interesting story of torch taste will be addressed in just a minute.
A little while back, Dave had the idea to hold a chinois over his torch and fire the flame through the metal mesh, to tame it down a bit and limit the torchiness.
Just a weird one-off, right? It turns out that it was a really good idea. Presenting: the best new way to finish meat.
For a few weeks I’ve been testing out the new Dave solution. He and lab associate Piper have welded together a conical rig that mounts snugly on the end of a torch and shapes the flame into something more gentle and more useful. The interior of the metal cone — lined with
nichrome tougher-than-nichrome alloy mesh and insulation — provides a little pre-zone where the flame can reflect and spread out a bit. At the end of the cone, the flame passes through a double thickness of mesh. It emerges as a — I can’t say “gentle,” because I have blisters that say otherwise, but gentler — flame, that doesn’t gust forth at high speed and scatter your brulee sugar all over the counter. The output is a superheated area, a couple-inch-diameter breath of heat rather than a focused burst of flame. The mesh glows and radiates heat, which is something a torch never does.
The device makes short work of a chicken skin, a French onion soup, a steak. If the steak is thin, you don’t even need to precook it — torch it directly from raw to medium rare.
I didn’t even quite realize how unhelpful an unadorned blowtorch was until I tried using it for all the things I was doing with Dave’s gizmo. Crisping a loose piece of chicken skin with a classic torch, it shrivels up — you can’t get the center golden and crunchy before the edges char black. I got the same uneven result on fish skin and grilled cheese: black blotches on raw surfaces.
Slip the attachment (which doesn’t have a proper name yet, annoyingly) onto the end of a torch and it becomes a tool that’s less finicky and more useful. It’s gentle enough to bake dough like a handheld tandoor, but strong enough to do a steak in a minute or to give a beautiful golden crust to a plate full of raw scallops.
I started pointing it at other unsuspecting items in my kitchen. Trying to peel hard-cooked eggs? Waft the cone over the eggs and the shell becomes brittle and unfrustrating. I used it to give an even char to oak chips, for flavoring young whiskey, and even to soften up some buttercream from a safe distance.
It also does away with torch taste. In side-by-side tests, chicken skin, one of the most torch-taste-prone surfaces in my experience, came out perfectly clean-tasting again and again with the mesh in place. Without the mesh, I perceived varying hints of nastiness, regardless of variation in fuel choice and searing style.
What Is Torch Taste?
The theory about torch taste has always been: Sometimes a blowtorch doesn’t combust all the fuel it’s blowing out, so traces of propane wind up on the food and impart a nasty flavor. Propane and butane and natural gas are all impregnated with sulfury odorants such as ethyl mercaptan, as a safety measure so you can smell a gas leak. Those odorants are another possible culprit for the taste.
Modernist Cuisine makes the claim that butane and propane torches are more liable to cause torch taste, “because the low-power flame can’t burn off the gas fast enough,” and recommends using MAPP gas or even oxyacetylene. I picked up a cylinder of MAPP gas on this advice when the giant book first came out, and at first I thought I was noticing an improvement, but then my dishes, especially ones with low surface moisture to start with, like fatty meats or plain toast, began tasting torchy again.
(MAPP is a trade name for a now-discontinued fuel gas that was basically a mixture of methylacetylene and propadiene, which burned at 2926°C in air. The MAPP-compatible torch you bought can now take cylinders of a product called MAP/Pro, which according to the internet is largely propylene and burns at 2054°C, compared to propane’s retro 1980°C. According to the cylinder’s label though MAP/Pro offers “3x faster heat transfer than propane.” Coincidentally, the price of a canister of MAP/Pro is just about 3x that of a canister of propane.)
Arielle Johnson, friend of this blog, has a gas chromatograph. (She’d be our friend regardless, I’m sure.) She ran some preliminary comparisons of beef cooked a) with a torch and attachment b) with a torch with no attachment and c) in a pan. Take a look.
The results want a post of their own, but what’s on the bare-torch-cooked meat is compounds — like phenol and methoxyphenol oxime — that may be more the result of too-high heat than anything coming out of the fuel canister.
Also interestingly, the meat cooked with the Improved Torch had big spikes in acetoin and hexenal, both of which are associated with pleasant, desirable flavors.
Coming soon: your opportunity to buy a torch gizmo!