The literal definition of crème brûlée is “burnt cream;” the burnt part refers to the crunchy, caramelized sugar topping that crowns this elegant custard. In restaurant kitchens you will often hear the term turned into an action as in, “we need to brûlée the custards.” The word “brûléeing” has come into use.
While a broiler may be used, we find we have more control when using a hand-held torch. Then you have your choice of either a standard propane torch from the hardware store, which has many uses around the house, or a smaller butane powered torch (seen below),usually found in kitchenware stores. Either one of these torches allows you to move the flame around the sugar at will while you keep an eye on the progress. This degree of control helps get the job done well. Sometimes when using a broiler, the entire custard can heat up, liquefying it, which is why some recipes suggest placing your ramekins in an ice bath.
There are also tools called salamanders(seen below), which are like a branding iron and used in some professional kitchens. As they are not typically used at home, we will just make a brief mention of them here. They are typically made from cast iron, which is heated until red hot, and then the surface of the iron is pressed directly onto the sugar. They work best when the salamander and the sugar-covered surface are the same size, which is limiting.
For either the torch or broiler approach, make sure that the custard (or whatever you are brûléeing – like a pumpkin pie) is chilled or at room temperature. Spread sugar for topping in a thin, even layer over the surface and brûlée right before serving. Follow the tips below on how to brulee with a torch or your broiler.
Using a Torch
- Depending on your specific torch, you might want to adjust the heat level.
- Hold the flame just over the surface of the sugar and move slowly back and forth as the sugar bubbles and eventually caramelizes, turning amber brown and glassy. Sometimes it seems to work best if the flame is above the surface; sometimes it works best with it just touching. Experiment.
- You might have to go over sections repeatedly, which is fine.
- The caramelization can take seconds, or minutes, depending on many factors. Timing doesn’t matter as much as appearance. Sugar should be evenly melted, glassy and amber in color.
Using a Broiler
- The broiler must be preheated to high with the oven rack positioned on the highest level.
- Place ramekins in a roasting pan and fill with ice water to reach halfway up the ramekins. This will help prevent custards from melting.
- Place roasting pan in your oven and broil just until the sugar melts and caramelizes. Watch carefully, as it can caramelize quickly.
- If the sugar is melting unevenly, rotate the pan front to back.
- For brûléeing a pie, cover pie crust edges with aluminum foil, taking care not to crush the crust. Set the pie in roasting pan and fill with ice water to reach halfway up side of the pie plate. Proceed as above.