If you watch TV cooking shows, especially set in restaurants, you may have heard references to food being placed in the salamander. You may also have seen plates or other dishes being placed into small oven-like appliances, some of which may look similar to a large toaster oven. A salamander, today, is a nickname for a small self-contained broiler unit that is used to finish or brown dishes.
Salamanders are generally open in front and have racks that easily slide in and out. They can be used to crisp up the top of dishes, toast sub sandwiches, melt cheese, or even be used for actual broiling duty or slow baking. As well, they may be used to keep dishes warm.
Sometimes, pizza places that sell by the slice will use a salamander to quickly re-melt the cheese and give you a nice hot slice of pizza. Although a salamander can be used to melt cheese, there is also a specific type of broiler, similar to the salamander, that is meant to be used as a cheese melter.
Salamanders, since they can be used for more than one duty, offer a better alternative for most kitchens, but are more expensive and less simple to use than cheese melters. Many sources conflate simple cheese melters with salamanders, mistakenly assuming that all such broilers are low-intensity broilers, but a high-quality unit can produce a varying range of heat, up to searing temperatures of above 1500°F.
Salamanders can even be used to broil steaks, which, despite what you may think, is a great way to cook a steak, comparable to grilling, but without the risk of blackening due to flare-ups. For a delicate piece of fish, such as a fillet of sole or flounder, a salamander broiler, and broiling in general, may be superior to grilling.
For professional kitchens, salamander units can be quicker and more efficient than broiling in an oven. The fact that they can be mounted up high, usually above the cooking range, and out of the way means cheese can be melted or dishes can be finished without it interfering with the normal flow of the kitchen. A steakhouse may have several in a stack. As well, some units are meant for counter-top use. A salamander is not something most home kitchens would have, but they are also available for home use. Other names for a salamander are an overhead broiler, finishing oven, or hotel broiler. They may be gas or electric, but gas flame is, by far, the preferred type, with modern gas broilers using infrared burners. They can be from 3 to 6 feet long, with several heating zones. Three-foot models are the most widely used.
Why Are They Called Salamanders?
The modern overhead broiler units derive their nickname from a much older piece of equipment, from the 17th century and earlier, that was used for a similar purpose, but which took a lot more work. These were flat and rounded or squared pieces of heavy wrought-iron melted on a handle. The metal disc would be heated in coals to a red-hot temperature and then held on the top of the food to brown it or broil it. Alternatively a flat “kitchen shovel” would be heated in a similar way and used to brown or finish a dish. Today’s shovels, even the flat kind, would not work for this purpose because they are made of steel which does not have anywhere near the heat-retention ability of iron. I was unable to trace exactly why these implements became known as salamanders, but it may have something to do with the fact that they were placed in fire, which is associated with salamanders, owing to ancient beliefs that salamanders had an affinity for, could withstand, and even came forth from fire.
The iron salamander used for cooking actual derives its name from an earlier tradition of calling any superheated iron tool a salamander. Some people are still fond of making Crème Brulee the “old-fashioned” way, using a small cast iron salamander like that shown in the first image. Old-fashioned salamanders, however, often had long handles similar to shovels, as in the second image, above. Today, we have the advantage of being able to heat such salamanders on top of the stove, or on the grill. Smaller ones like the one that comes in the Crème Brulee set can also be heated effectively in the oven. Unless you are in for adventure, a small kitchen blow-torch will probably be a more useful investment and versatile investment.
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