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If you watch video of a restaurant kitchen you always see, sooner or later, a spout of flame from one of the pans on the stove. That doesn't happen when I cook at home, and on the rare occasions when I eat in a restaurant with an open kitchen I don't see it there either. So what's going on? I'd think the cooks are using brandy or something, but it seems to happen too often for that explanation. Is it some kind of optical illusion, like when cars on TV look like their wheels are turning backward?

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    Are you sure it's not simply advertisement? I mean, when you take a video for marketing purposes, you want it to be pretty and flashy, and flames are cool to do that. It doesn't even need to be a cook who is shown as a cook, right? Or you are thinking about more documentary videos? Or casual ones? – Mołot Dec 12 '16 at 12:21
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There's no optical illusion, what you are seeing is real flame shooting up. In a kitchen flare-ups have 2 common sources - alcohol and fat. Alcohol in concentrations 50% and above is flammable when cold, you add some brandy, vodka, etc and away you go. When heated 40% alcohol will burn in the pan, anything above 40% can be used for flambes.

Fats (ie lipids as in oil or fat from animal of vegetable sources) can also burn when very hot and exposed to an open flame as anyone who barbecues will know all too well. Fat flares can happen in any kitchen in the right conditions (even at home), say when something is being vigorously stirred and a bit of hot fat splashes down the side of a pan and ignites, trailing back to the pan itself and giving a quick burst of flame.

As for how often it happens it really depends on what is being cooked, the equipment and method used. If there's a lot of steak action happening then some flames are pretty normal, if they're making vegetable stew ... not so much. It could be a bunch of chefs being showy for the camera, or just going about their normal business, it's very hard to say.

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    I've had it happen with sausages. It's interesting when you're under a canvas shelter at the time. That wasn't even a high power stove. – Chris H Dec 12 '16 at 17:49
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    40% alcohol is flammable. 80 proof (40%) booze is frequently used (perhaps even most often in US kitchens) for flambe. – Jolenealaska May 16 '18 at 0:48
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    @Jolenealaska Flammability of alcohol does not only depend on ABV but also on temperature. Ice cold 40% vodka won't be flammable unless you heat it. So if it hits the pan cold it might not give you that nice TV chef flame. – Ian May 16 '18 at 7:48
  • Both good points that deserve to be in my answer, I'll edit. – GdD May 16 '18 at 8:09
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As a chef who cooks every day, this happens when oil in the pan is heated past its smoke point. The oil creates a nasty smoke that is filled with oxidized and carbonized oil particles that impart a burnt, charred flavor to sauteed foods. It is generally seen as a mistake in sauteeing, and not a desirable effect. Flambeeing, of course, is when a copious amount of wine or liquor is involved and is desirable, as the volatile alcoholic compounds are being oxidized away and undesirable flavors are being driven off.

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