There’s something inherently fun about popping the cork of a bottle of wine ... then pouring it into a pot to cook with it. It already feels like you’re on your way to something special, which you are.
Cooking with alcohol makes things taste better.
Whether you’re adding wine, liquor, or beer, just as salt enhances flavors, so, too, does alcohol.
I’ve suspected this all along but wasn’t sure how, exactly, it worked, so I did some research. According to an article I read in Fine Cooking magazine (by David Joachim and Andrew Schloss), it’s pure chemistry. Alcohol evaporates rapidly, so it actually helps “carry” the aroma of whatever we’re making to our nose that much faster, which enhances our eating experience by giving us an olfactory sneak preview of what we’re about to enjoy. (Most of what we actually “taste” is what we smell, anyway.)
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Secondly — nerd alert — alcohol serves as a helping hand to link fat and water molecules. In a brine or marinade, or even a braise, this means that the alcohol, wine, beer, or whatever will actually help the flavorings penetrate the meat (the fat), so you’ll have a richer-tasting roast.
Then there’s the flavor of the alcohol, which I like to think of as simply an added ingredient to what I’m making. Bourbon can add a hint of smokiness, whereas rum, made from molasses, has a sweet note. Lager beers can add a brightness, whereas stouts, like a Guinness, add richer, deeper, sometimes caramel flavors.
Depending on what you’re cooking, it usually doesn’t take much. A tablespoon or two in a sauce or a dessert, and you’ve just upped your flavor manyfold. Plus if you add a little alcohol to ice cream or sorbet recipes (which I do often), it’ll help keep it from freezing rock-hard. It’ll firm up but be scoopable.
Finally, note that less booze is usually more — flavor, that is. If you overdo, it may end up overshadowing something more delicate, like a dessert or a sauce.
Contrary to popular belief, unless you’re cooking something for hours and hours, the alcohol doesn’t cook off in the process. But even in a long braise — a beef Bourguignon, coq au vin, or below, Toni’s lamb — which often call for a half-bottle to a bottle of wine, you’re unlikely to get tipsy.
Either way, you should always cook with what you’d drink. A lesser-than wine or liquor is only going to make whatever you’re making not be as wonderful as it could be. It’s worth it to spend a few extra bucks. Plus then you can happily taste as you go.
Which I always like to do. Cheers.