What You Need to Caramelize Crème Brûlée

by Elizabeth Skipper | July 30th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

french-170370_640I don’t own a kitchen torch to make crème brûlée. I have heard that I can use my oven’s broiler. However, I also am worried about putting the glass dishes under the broiler. Won’t the combination of glass and a broiler have bad results?

Putting glass baking dishes like Pyrex or Anchor Hocking under the broiler is definitely not recommended; the manufacturers tell you so. However, don’t confuse glass with porcelain or terracotta, both of which are made of clay. Their qualities differ, and both of those can take the heat of a broiler. The predominant material of choice is porcelain – you can find it almost anywhere kitchen goods are sold. Enameled cast iron can take the heat; and that’s another choice for crème brûlée dishes, but they’re not as common. They’re also pricier.

Frankly, I haven’t had much luck using a broiler to melt the sugar topping on crème brûlées. My broiler is electric, and I don’t know if that has anything to do with it, but I’ve found that the sugar never melts properly and in the attempt to get it hot enough, the custard beneath begins to soften. Should you want to give it a shot, be sure to preheat your broiler; give it at least 15 minutes.

I suggest you get a torch. If you don’t have a lot of storage room, buy a compact butane one designed for culinary use. It may irritate you, though, because they take a while to get the job done, about one minute each. For eight ramekins, that’s eight minutes, a long time if you’re doing the caramelizing before serving. If you have enough space, purchase a propane torch from the hardware store. They’re more powerful, hold much more fuel, and are actually cheaper. I think I paid about $15 for mine a couple of years ago. Besides, it looks like you mean business when you get out the big guns!

If that seems like overkill, consider some other uses for a big torch. Toppings, such as bread crumbs or cheese on a casserole, can be browned with one. Want to add that nice caramelized touch to the top of a meringue? Or brown the marshmallows on a dish of sweet potatoes? The torch will do it easily. You can use it to char the skins on peppers, chiles, or tomatoes so that they come off easily without overcooking the vegetable itself.

There’s also the original tool cooks used for browning or broiling, the salamander. It’s a long metal rod with a heat-proof handle on one end; the business end is a thick metal disk which is heated to red-hot before being passed closely over the food to be browned. Available at specialty stores, these tools need no more than a source of heat to bring them up to temperature, and having one allows you to quiz people about its use in the kitchen. Won’t that make for some interesting guesses?

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