Instant Expert: Cooking with Alcohol — Why You Should Do it
You've probably noticed that beer, liquor and wine seem to frequently find their way into recipes. Do poached pears, French onion soup or shrimp scampi sound familiar? They're just a small sampling of some popular dishes that use alcohol as an ingredient. But what business does your favorite beer or spirit have in your dinner? A lot of things actually. We explain here.
What it does: Beer, wine and spirits aren't just for drinking. They're versatile ingredients in the kitchen and believe it or not, alcohol, like salt, is key for enhancing the flavor of a dish. The chemical properties of alcohol allow it to bond with both water and fat molecules, which for you means it easily soaks up the flavor of fat-soluble ingredients like garlic, herbs and aromatics and transfers those flavors to meat, chicken, fish, etc. by penetrating their cells. This is the case whether you baste, brine or marinate when cooking.
Because of its highly volatile nature, alcohol can also heighten the aroma of different foods. The molecules dissolve into the alcohol, which then evaporate quickly, conveying a delicious aroma to your nose.
It's also an important ingredient for deglazing (the process of making a sauce from the liquid that result from cooking something). When you add beer, wine or spirits to the pan after cooking, the properties of the alcohol dissolve the proteins and other flavors left in the pan, creating a delicious, flavorful sauce.
And while no other ingredient works in quite the same way, substitutes can most definitely be used if you prefer your dish without the booze.
A little goes a long way. You don't need to douse your food to get the desired effect, just a splash or too of the stuff is enough to usher in big flavor. Add too much and you'll end up overpowering both the smell and taste of the food.
Does the alcohol burn off? This is a question that seems to pop up again and again. And with reason. You want to bring out the flavors of the food you're cooking, not make it taste like it's been swimming in a bowl of chardonnay. But, contrary to popular belief, the alcohol does not burn off during cooking. However, the percentage of alcohol can be reduced in a dish, but by how much depends on cooking time and the method of used. The USDA has a handy a chart that breaks it all down: