Spaghetti Surprise!
August 19, 2012 6:16 PM   Subscribe

I added some red wine to a hot pan containing some carmelized onions and garlic and spices and just-added cold ground turkey. FWOOM the wine ignited as if it were brandy in souvlaki. Wha?

I make this spaghetti sauce about once a week, and the addition of a flavoring liquid as the meat goes in to the pan is normal. There were some more onions in the pan than usual, but not an amount I haven't cooked with previously.

The wine was a 13.9% ABV from Twisted, possibly the Old Vines Zinfandel. The wine did not appear or taste as if it had more booze than marked and would NOT match light immediately thereafter.

I kept my head and looked closely at (well, carefully observed) the flame, and the smell and appearance of the fire confirmed it as an acohol fire to my satisfaction. It burned over safely without charring a thing and definitely did contribute a bit to the flavor profile of the finished sauce.

I still cannot figure out how or why exactly it happened. I think the physics are clear enough - the heat of the pan kept enough of the wine in a vapor or gas that the booze was able to combust. However, I think that is an insufficient explanation - I have been adding wine to cookery for 20 years and have only seen harder booze, sherries or brandies, catch fire at all, and certainly never have seen either a sherry or a brandy just combust.

What happened? Can I reproduce this in a safe manner? Did the onions somehow contribute?
posted by mwhybark to Food & Drink (12 answers total)
Response by poster: I should note the pan was a 3" deep 20-year old Revereware 12" saucepan made after the switch to thinner copper sheathing, the heat source was gas, and the heat level on the pan is what I would characterize as low, turned down after the carmelization of the onions to keep them from burning. The onions had produced a fair amount of liquid in the carmelization process. I use olive oil.
posted by mwhybark at 6:22 PM on August 19, 2012

Alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, so you probably ignited the cloud of alcohol by displacing it with ground turkey (I'm guessing you have a gas stove).
posted by anadem at 6:22 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you reproduce it - probably, but may be tricky to get the right amount of alcohol vapor.
Did the onions contribute - I don't think so.
posted by anadem at 6:25 PM on August 19, 2012

If you had more onions in the pan than usual, is it possible you also had more oil/butter in the pan also? That could have been what ignited in the first place.
posted by thisclickableme at 6:33 PM on August 19, 2012

I've had butter ignite that way. Might have been the oil?
posted by slateyness at 6:37 PM on August 19, 2012

I've had this happen when making coq au vin with Two Buck Chuck in a Dutch oven. Left the pot on the stove for a few minutes, opened it to check on things and tilted the lid so that condensation would run back into the cooking liquid and FWOOSH! Luckily I didn't get singed.

Were there any hot spots in the pan? I was taught to flambé by heating a spot on the pan in the stovetop flame, then swishing the alcohol onto that spot, so it's not terribly surprising to me that it would ignite without an open flame.
posted by asterix at 6:42 PM on August 19, 2012

I think you mean "saganaki" (the flaming cheese), not "souvlaki" (the spit-roasted meat) unless you've been to way more exciting Greek restaurants than I have.

I have had this happen two or three times, always when my pan was hotter than I thought it was. Were you by any chance using the "power burner" or similar? That's been the culprit for me both with wine combustion and roux scorching, even when the flame looked appropriately low.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: That wine won't ignite at room temperature, but if you heated it up, it would burn at least briefly. My guess is the simultaneous heating of the vapor and the preferential evaporation of the ethanol caused the vapor to reach a flash point, which is only 125F/52C for 12.5% wine. Ethanol's auto-ignition temperature is 689F/365C, which is hot but not out of the question for a very hot pan on a home stove. The boiling point of ethanol is 173F/78C, so you probably boiled all the ethanol off at once, and then a stray flame ignited it.

For what it's worth, I have gotten a pretty impressive fireball in my oven when adding a large quantity (several cups) of wine to a 5 liter saute pan. There was no apparent source of ignition, but the heating elements presumably get to the auto-ignition temperature and set the vapor off. Sounded like a race car wooshing by.
posted by wnissen at 7:04 PM on August 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing this just being a thing that happens. I've had this happen a few times, always in shallow pans over gas.
posted by howfar at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2012

Response by poster: saganaki, check, and thank you - although I have in fact been to a few unexpectedly exciting Greek or Greek-ish places, including a place in Chicago called the Orient Express, Diana's also in Chicago, and Taki's Mad Greek here in Seattle. None of these places practiced souvlaki flambé, though.

Adding the wine after the turkey, so no splash-up effect from adding the turkey. No hot spots; the pan heats evenly except in the middle where there is a slight warp (the result of the thinner copper on the 'newer' Revereware). That area was entirely covered by the turkey, though.

Very definitely no oil combustion at all.

No special burner settings available.

I think the flash point explanation makes the most sense, especially if a drop or two of wine splashed up and out into the heat column around the sides of the pan. The exterior surface of the pan is the likeliest place for 625F, with the exception of the actual burner flame itself, which was not exposed around the sides of the pan.
posted by mwhybark at 8:15 PM on August 19, 2012

Even though flambé is generally a technique practiced with spirits, I have seen it accomplished with wine. I suspect that you need the bottle sealed but at room temperature to maximize vapor, and that you need to glug it in, with the pan angled, to get the maximum surface area to extend a vapor cloud over the edge of the pan.

I think the turkey temperature is a red herring (as it were).
posted by gingerest at 8:56 PM on August 19, 2012

Seconding wnissen. It may go against a cook's expectation and experience, but you actually don't have to heat wine very much to make it flammable. Just pour some wine into a pan, heat it to 125°F or more, add a flame, and you will see the vapor burn.
As to why you got the FWOOSH, that's because the alcohol vapor rapidly coming off the wine mixed with air before the flame found it. This significant volume of alcohol/air mixture burned all at once... i.e., exploded.
posted by exphysicist345 at 11:18 PM on August 19, 2012

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