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How to Cook with Alcohol

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Grab your liquor from your bar cart and bring it to the kitchen. Spirited cooking awaits.

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Deciding what to drink is easy. Sure, you might be debating whether to go for a Margarita or Whiskey Sour, but you already know you like both of them. Unless it’s poorly made, it’s not going to taste terrible.

Cooking with alcohol is a little less intuitive. It can involve vile substances like flat beer and those bottles labeled with "cooking wine." It’s almost as scary as a night involving more than one Four Loko. Do you use good wine or the cheap stuff? How much do you add? When? It’s enough to give you a headache worse than a hangover. Here’s how to cook properly with booze:

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First, why bother?
You know why you drink alcohol. But why cook with it? When used properly, alcohol improves your food. It bonds with both fat and water molecules, which allows it to carry aromas and flavor. In a marinade, alcohol helps the season the meat and carry flavor (not tenderize). It functions similarly in cooked sauces, making your food smell and taste better.

Pick wisely:
This is the easy part. Use any alcohol you would drink -- nothing undrinkable and none of that “cooking wine,” which is just inexpensive wine that isn't meant for drinking. However, steer clear of your really nice stuff -- save that for the table, because its nuance will be lost when cooking.

More: Drinking while you cook is a good idea.

Let it sink in:
If you’re cooking meat, then alcohol is your friend. The flavor of booze is strong enough to complement, not overpower, your dish. Start by adding just a little bit of alcohol to your marinade, as too much can denature the proteins and affect the texture. Darker alcohols like stout or whiskey pair best with dark meats like pork or beef. Similarly, lighter spirits like gin and tequila match with white meats or seafood.

More: A steak that's flavored with whiskey -- and sugar. 

Soak it up:
While you can’t substitute alcohol for water all the time, you can swap out a bit of water for some beer or wine when you want added flavor. This technique works best for poaching fruit, as the wine highlights the sweetness of the fruit. Pears in red wine are perfect for dark winter days, while white wine and apricots are lovely in the summer. Soaking fruit in wine is also a great way to save overripe fruit and wine that’s a bit too sugary for drinking. Like a much needed cocktail after a long day, alcohol can rescue your food.

Make it saucy:
To elevate a bland chicken breast or otherwise plain steak, make a pan sauce. Once you’ve removed the meat from the skillet, pour some wine or beer into the pan and start scraping the bottom. This will dislodge all the stuck, caramelized bits and turn them into a thick and flavorful sauce. Again, white wine or light beer works best for chicken and fish, while red wine and darker beers are best for red meat.

More: The best roast chicken with garlic and herb pan sauce. 

Make sweets even more fun:
Dessert is already good. Dessert with booze is even better. While you don’t want to drown your food in alcohol (remember that vodka soaked watermelon?), a moderate amount is just right. Spike your fruit in a more classy way by making a rum caramel sauce that you can drizzle on top of oranges. If you’re going for subtlety, add a few tablespoons of liqueur to your cake batter, like in this Maple Bourbon Banana Bread. The alcohol will just add a little depth without tasting too intense. If you’re looking for something stronger, you can soak your sweets in booze: Baba au rhum, tres leches cake, and bourbon balls are all very smart choices.

More: Adding booze to desserts is such a good idea, we wrote a whole post about it.

All photos by James Ransom, except pear photo by Eric Moran

Tags: alcohol, wine, liquor, how-to, meat, dessert