If you’re ready to bring your cooking game to the next-level, it’s time to investigate using alcohol in some of your dishes. Alcohol brings out the aroma and flavor of various ingredients, giving your meal a rich complexity. Don’t be intimidated by visions of bustling kitchens with flames sprouting up into the air; you can use alcohol at home without having to burn it off!
Commonly Used Types of Alcohol
Wine is one of the most commonly used types of alcohol, especially in Italian and French cuisine. You can pair various white wines with seafood, chicken, or even pork recipes, while heavier dishes involving beef or lamb tend to work well with red wines. Most recipes involving wine will call for a dry or crisp version, and include things like Sherry, Madeira, Chianti, Marsala, or Pinot Grigio. In addition to getting the right pairing of wine to protein, you’ll also want to research the best kinds of herb flavors that will compliment your dish.
Cooking with beer isn’t just for brats, especially with the explosion of microbrewery varieties that offer a host of flavors to compliment your dishes. Beer lends a distinct flavor to sauces, chili, and batter to be used in a deep-fryer, but it also pairs well with cheese and onion dishes such as soups, macaroni dishes, and risotto as well.
Bourbon and vodka are popular kinds of hard liquor used in some recipes, often with starchy foods like vegetables and pastas. Some recipes call for maceration, which is a process of soaking fruit in a medium like rum; this is a popular process for desserts, infusions, or party beverages. Some kinds of liquor can also be used to brine protein in similar fashion, and if left uncovered, the alcohol content of the brine can be reduced simply through evaporation. Most of these items can be found at your local liquor store, and if you don’t need large quantities for your recipe, it might be possible to save money and buy a nip-sized bottle.
Ways to Cook with Alcohol
When cooking your sauce, you might use a variety of techniques to arrive at the right flavor profile for your dish and to reduce the alcohol content appropriately. Since alcohol is extremely flammable, lighting your dish aflame briefly until the surface alcohol burns off, a process called flambé, is an effective way to quickly unleash flavor, though your dish may retain a fair percentage of alcohol depending (possibly as much as 75%). This can be a dangerous technique, and if you are not confident in the kitchen, you can try your first flambé out on a grill with a fire extinguisher on hand in case of an accident.
Make sure you aren’t wearing loose clothing and there are no low-hanging tree limbs or building structures while you get used to the process; you may have seen chefs flipping items in the pan while their sauce burns down, but remember they have been using this technique for years and have developed the hand-to-eye coordination necessary to keep their eyebrows, clothes, limbs, and surrounding environment intact while vigorously handling an open flame.
More subdued techniques involve deglazing and reduction, which take longer and tend to leave a higher alcohol content upon completion of the dish. Be especially careful if you are using alcohol with a deep-fryer; also, if you pay for a used cooking oil collection service, check to make sure they will accept oil that might contain alcohol. Baking and simmering for over an hour will provide the most reduction the alcohol content of your dish and can significantly release the aromatic component of your ingredients.
Important Note: before you break out your latest haute cuisine cooking techniques for your guests, make sure alcohol is on the menu for them. Some religions, medical conditions, and medications forbid the consumption of alcohol, so it’s best to be prepared in advance.