Using alcohol in cooking can add flavor and depth to sweet and savory dishes. When not cooked long enough for some of the alcohol to evaporate, however, it may also add a harsh flavor. Different recipes call for various types of alcohol. Wine is a popular choice in savory cooking, although braises, sauces, and other savory dishes may use beer, fortified alcoholic beverages like Sherry, Marsala, and brandy, spirits, or even sweeter wines like port. Spirits and liqueurs are commonly used in sweet dishes and flambées, while wine is a popular beverage for poaching fruits.
Many people assume that heating alcohol for a few moments "burns it off." While cooking alcohol over high heat for a few moments does minimize the harshness of the alcohol so you only taste its mellower flavors in the food, it takes quite a length of sustained cooking for alcohol to completely burn off.
Ethyl alcohol, the kind found in alcoholic beverages, evaporates at about 173 degrees Fahrenheit. While it begins to evaporate at this temperature, however, it evaporates quite slowly.
In 2007, the USDA performed an analysis of alcohol and nutrients lost through cooking and determined the rate at which alcohol burns off during various cooking methods.
- When you flame alcohol until the flames go out (flambé), it burns off approximately 25 percent of the alcohol.
- When you add alcohol to a boiling liquid (usually a sauce or braise) and remove it from the heat, the residual temperature burns off about 15 percent of the alcohol quickly. The remaining 15 percent may take several hours of sustained heat to remove all traces of alcohol.
- If you add alcohol to a simmering sauce/braise or stir it into a batter and bake it, about 60 percent will burn off after 15 minutes. For each additional 30 minutes, about 5 to 10 percent burns off. Even after 2.5 hours of cooking, about 5 percent of the alcohol remains.
Adding Alcohol to Your Dishes
How and when you add the alcohol to recipes affects the flavor of your foods. Alcoholic beverages can leave a harsh flavor in foods if they are not added early enough in the process so that some of the alcohol cooks off. Consider the following tips for adding alcohol when you cook.
When creating a pan sauce, add alcohol to the hot pan after you've sautéed your aromatics and before you add other liquid ingredients, a process called deglazing. After you've added the alcohol, scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula so you can incorporate more flavor into the food. Add other liquid ingredients 30 seconds to a minute after adding the alcohol.
Braises and Soups
In braises, simmered sauces, and soups, it's best to add alcohol after you've sautéed meats and aromatics but before you add other liquid ingredients. This allows you to deglaze the pan and remove alcohol's harshest flavor components. Add remaining liquid ingredients after about 30 seconds.
In gravies, add alcohol after you've made the roux, which is stirring in flour and cooking it with the fat. Stir to completely incorporate and then add other liquid ingredients.
Baking is a very specific chemical process. Therefore, it is best to following baking recipes exactly, adding alcohol as outlined.
When you flambé, you must be very cautious. While the alcohol, which burns with a blue flame, should burn off after just a few seconds, it's best to take some basic safety precautions.
- Always have a pot lid nearby in case you need to extinguish flames.
- Remove the pan from the heat source before you add alcohol.
- Keep hair tied back and secure any loose clothing.
- Tilt the pan away from you when you light the flame.
- Use alcohol that is between 80 and 100 proof. Higher proof alcohols are dangerous to flambé.
To flambé, complete the following steps.
- Remove the pan from the heat source.
- Add the alcohol and allow it to warm gently for about 10 seconds. Do not stir. Alternatively, gently warm the alcohol to about 130 degrees before adding it to the pan.
- Tilt the pan away from you and light the alcohol.
- Allow the flames to burn off and serve.
Substitutes for Alcohol
In many cases, you can enjoy the flavors from certain alcohols in cooking without adding any alcohol. The following are all good substitutes for alcoholic beverages in recipes.
- Non-alcoholic wine or beer can replace traditional wine or beer in recipes.
- You can replace liqueurs with similarly flavored alcohol-free extracts. For example, if a dish calls for Amaretto, use 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract instead.
- Fruit juice can substitute for many liqueurs and spirits in cooking. For example, use orange juice to replace Cointreau, or use raspberry juice to replace Framboise.
- Replace Sake in Asian dishes with rice vinegar.
- Flavored vinegars (red wine vinegar, balsamic) can replace alcoholic beverages in savory dishes.
- Chicken stock or water can replace alcohol, as well.
- Use lemon or lime juice in savory dishes in place of alcohol to add acidity to your dish.
If you are watching your sugar intake, you may want to use a substitution. Alcohols that contain sugars will add sugar to the dish. While dry wines and spirits won't add any sugars to dishes, sweet wines and liqueurs will.
When cooking with alcohol, keep the following in mind.
- Avoid alcohol labeled "cooking" such as "cooking wine." This has salt added, which can result in an overly salty dish.
- Never cook with an alcohol you wouldn't drink. If the alcoholic beverage has such inferior flavors you wouldn't enjoy drinking it alone, then it will add those flavors to your food, as well.
- If you are going to add cream to a dish with alcohol in it, add it at the end after some of the alcohol has cooked off, or your cream will curdle.
- If you aren't much of a drinker, buy mini alcohol bottles instead of full bottles for cooking. You can buy small bottles of wine, liqueurs, and spirits for cooking and waste less.
- It's best to remove a hot pan from the heat source before adding alcohol to reduce risk of fire. You can return it to the flame as soon as the alcohol is added.
- Never pour alcohol into a hot dish from the bottle. Instead, measure it and add from a measuring cup. That way, if the alcohol does accidentally ignite, you won't have a larger fire on your hands.
Cooking with alcohol can add depth to foods and balance flavor profiles. By using proper alcohol cooking techniques, your foods will taste delicious.