Light That Citrus Up! | Adding A Fiery Flair To Cocktails

Bartenders have flamed cocktails for years, and it’s a skill that’s still impressive to witness. This practice usually entails the bartenders holding up a citrus peel over your drink and lighting it with a torch.

It’s a good way of utilizing citrus peels. Rather than discarding it, you get the best oils to enhance the drink’s flavor and vibe by rimming it on the cocktail glass tip.

Learning to flame a citrus peel is easier than you think. All it takes are the right procedures and some trial-and-error, but don’t worry! We’ve got your back with these helpful tips to make mastering this skill much more manageable. Read on!

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The Science behind Flaming Citrus Peels

Plate of orange peels, whole orange, and knife

The theatrical act of flaming citrus peels may lead some people to ask if citrus fruits are flammable. The fruit itself is not, but the oils in their peels are. The citrus rinds are full of oils or volatile chemical compounds called Limonene, which is flammable.

This hydrocarbon is present in most citrus fruits like lemons and limes, but it is most concentrated in oranges. This is why some people save and dry orange peels so they can use them as fire starters.

This chemical also gives the characteristic smell after peeling an orange or grapefruit and is an active pesticide ingredient. Furthermore, Limonene has a flashpoint of about 118°F or 47.8°C. Generally, it’s easier to catch fire when a compound has a low flashpoint.

Flashpoint refers to the lowest temperature that allows a flammable chemical, such as Limonene, to create vapor, mix with air, and ultimately ignite when exposed to a fire source.

If the temperature of the fire source exceeds the chemical’s flashpoint, then the chemical will produce sufficient vapor for ignition to start.

A lit matchstick is commonly used for flaming citrus peels, and it has a temperature of about 1,100 to 1,400°F. This is clearly above Limonene’s flashpoint, which causes the ignition.

Why Do Bartenders Flame Citrus Peels?

Bartender Preparing Negroni Cocktail

Flaming citrus peels over cocktails is an elegant and flashy technique that can certainly captivate people in a crowded bar with ease.

It is said to have been pioneered by Pepe Ruiz, a bartender who created the Flame of Love cocktail for singer-actor Dean Martin in the 1970s. The drink was composed of vodka and sherry and finished by giving an entire orange twist a quick burst through fire for a dazzling effect.

While this technique is mostly done for dramatic effect, it can also provide additional flavor and aroma to cocktails.

When you squeeze or express the peels over a flame, the oils get caramelized. Some bartenders also say that this reduces the bright character of the citrus oil and imparts a delightfully smoky profile to the drink.

This is great for people who want to enjoy citrus flavors mixed with deeper flavors from the smoke. This is why the flamed twist of citrus peel can often complement darker and often smoky flavors from bourbon, Mezcal, etc.

What You’ll Need

  • Cocktail – Prepare a simple stirred or mixed drink for testing the flaming citrus procedure. You can find delicious recipes below that benefit most from flaming a citrus peel on them.
  • Paring knife or citrus peeler – The former is great for controlling how deep you cut into the fruit, while the latter (usually a Y-peeler) does a fantastic job of quickly peeling a uniform thickness of the skin.
  • Citrus Fruits Orange is commonly used because it has a huge amount of oils, allowing it to light brighter. But, you can also use lemon, lime, grapefruit, and more.
  • Matches or cigar torch – Bartenders favor matches when flaming citrus peels because they’re easier to handle, cheap, and don’t impart a butane taste to the drink.

But, you can also use a cigar torch. Just make sure that it runs on higher-quality butane so it doesn’t leave an unpleasant taste.

How to Flame a Citrus Peel 

  1. Take your paring knife or Y-peeler and cut a round section of the citrus rind with a bit of pith. It should be approximately 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
    Bartender peeling a citrus peel
  2. Place the cocktail on a secure and flat surface.
  3. Hold the freshly cut peel with your thumb and index finger with your dominant hand.
  4. Using your non-dominant hand, light a matchstick or your torch. Gently preheat the citrus peel for about 3 to 5 seconds to maximize oil extraction.
    Bartender preheating a citrus rind with a torch
  5. Position the fire about 3 inches above the drink. Meanwhile, position the peel with the colored side directly facing the mouth of the cocktail glass, about 3 inches above the fire. This prevents giving your drink that burnt look on the surface.
    Bartending positioning the fire and citrus over a cocktail
  6. Quickly and firmly pinch the citrus peel over the fire to create the flame effect and release the aromatic oils.

    You know that you’ve successfully done this step if you see the spark, smell the slightly burnt citrus, and sometimes hear a subtle crackling sound. Repeat this step if you feel there are still oils to be released.

    Squeezing and igniting the oils
  7. Rub the peel on the rim of the glass to impart the residual oils. Optionally, drop the rind in the drink, and serve.

      This video will show you how to properly flame your own citrus peel to make cocktails.

      Flaming Citrus Peels Tips

      • Use a Sharp Smooth Blade.

      Whether you’re using a steel knife or a peeler to cut a citrus rind, make sure that it is sharp so it will be easier to get a clean cut. Do not use a serrated knife because it may not cut as smoothly as a regular blade, and you may have less control in peeling.

      • Don’t Cut the Fruit Too Deep.

      When cutting the peel, it’s okay to get a bit of the pith or the white, bitter layer because this adds a little thickness to the peel, making it easier to squeeze.

      However, don’t cut too deep to the point that the fruit itself is exposed. Once this happens, the juice from the pulp may come into contact with the freshly cut zest and reducing the bursting flame effect.

      When citrus fruit is fresh, the peels are usually thicker and firmer, indicating that it contains ample oils. You should also choose citrus fruits with small dimples on the exterior since these are tiny pockets where the oils are contained.

      Most bartenders don’t want anything to do with a regular lighter because these are fueled by butane. This gas has quite an unpleasant smell that ruins the cocktail’s taste and aroma. Most lighters often have a lower quality of butane; the lower the quality, the stronger its gas scent is.

      • Practice Until You Get It Right

      The idea of using fire in preparing cocktails may be intimidating to some people, especially if they’re new to the trick. But, with constant practice, you can perform it with no hassle.

      Remember that this skill requires both your hands, with each one handling a different item. You can start by lighting a candle and letting it stand so you can focus on the pressing techniques first. Once you get it right, try lighting a match with one hand and holding the citrus in the other.

      When you’re ready to press, be sure to do it quickly all the way. If you hesitate and do it slowly, it may be anticlimactic because the oils will not have reached the flames. Don’t worry; you’re not going to get burned because the effect is not substantial to burn you or anyone else.

      The pieces of rinds that you can harvest from a single citrus fruit depend on its size. So, normally you’ll get more citrus peels from a grapefruit than an orange or lemon because it’s bigger.

      When making cocktails, it’s better to utilize the whole fruit peel for multiple cocktails while they’re still fresh and full of oils. Once the fruit has been cut, its effectiveness at releasing oil will diminish. The skin becomes flimsy and flat, which means it’s no longer as good for extracting their citrus oils and scents.

      • Try Flaming Citrus Peels Over These Cocktails!

      The flaming citrus trick is most suitable for whiskey-based drinks or those that have an orange component, like Cointreau or bitters in their recipe. You’ll also notice that these cocktails are prepared simply by either stirring with a bar spoon or shaking with a cocktail shaker.

      Try making these iconic and delicious cocktails and see how flaming citrus peels affect their tastes.

      Conclusion

      Who would’ve thought that simply expressing the oils from citrus peels could create a tiny flamethrower effect and take cocktails to a new level? Lucky for you, it’s an easy trick to master once you follow the steps and tips properly.

      Cocktail garnishes already elevate cocktails, but there’s something about flaming a citrus peel that makes drinks alive. So if you want to impress your family and friends or just want to expand your bartending skill set, you can always learn how to flame citrus peels.

      What other skills or topics do you want us to cover? We’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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