Using Alcohol in Your Cooking

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Alcohol works well in cooking because it has an incredibly strong scent.

How to Taste (Sasquatch Books, 2018), by Becky Selengut explains to readers how to properly taste your food and give it the seasoning it needs most. You will learn how to adjust dishes that are too salty or acidic, how to identify when a specific seasoning is missing, and how to use spices to balance your dishes. The following excerpt explains how to use alcohol when cooking.

Alcohol is volatile (evaporates easily) and when it evaporates up into your nose, flavor compounds from food hitch a ride. Simply stated, booze makes your food smell better. Compare the smell of lemonade to the smell of limoncello. No contest which one has a more powerful, intense lemon aroma. If you want to improve the aromatics of macerating cherries, hit them with a tiny splash of kirsch (cherry brandy)—but not too much or the smell of the alcohol itself will dominate. Likewise, add a spot of limoncello to a lemon tart for some heady next-level cooking.

Alcohol improves flavor by acting as a mediator between fat and water, bonding with both. Fat and water don’t bond well with each other, so by inviting booze into this molecular three-way, aromatic compounds (typically fat-soluble) in food (which is mostly water) can cross more easily into the promised land, aka your olfactory cells—command central for the perception of flavor.

Cooking with alcohol absolutely ups the flavor game in your cooking, but only when it makes sense (pro tip: not in guacamole). So pour a little booze into the pot and add it to sauces to dramatically increase the flavor quotient. Do keep in mind that it’s a myth that the alcohol burns off completely during cooking. In a flambé (does anyone still flambé?), 75 percent of the alcohol remains; in a braise that’s cooked for 2-1/2 hours, 5 percent is retained.

Probably most importantly, alcohol helps you to create memorable meals because of its social lubricant powers, putting people into a relaxed state where the food, the company, everything is a little bit more fun. Fact: your disaster of a dish tastes much better when you’re pleasantly buzzed.

Alcohol can also ruin a dinner, either when there isn’t any or when there’s far too much. If you don’t drink, you are probably way more aware of imperfections in the food (and maybe imperfections in your dinner guests), unless of course you like weed—in that case, you love the food soooo much, it’s the best food you’ve ever had in your whoooole life.

My wife, April, is a trained sommelier, so I have an ace in the hole when I need great wine pairings for my private chef dinners. Over the years she’s taught me some great tips for pairing food with wine (and cider and beer). Match the body of the food to the body of the wine. A rich, heavy meat dish needs a big (higher in alcohol), bold red wine that helps to cut the fat. Unless it’s spicy. Don’t pair spicy foods with high alcohol and tannic red wines. The alcohol and tannins aggravate your already aggravated palate, making the chiles seem even hotter. In general, don’t pair spicy foods with high acid wines because acid exacerbates the heat, though there are exceptions. Try a jalapeño with a high acid sauvignon blanc and your mouth will catch on fire. High acid, off-dry Rieslings that have residual sugar, however, can still work with spicy dishes because the sugar balances the chiles. Take that same jalapeño pepper with an off-dry Riesling and you will taste the depth of flavor in both the wine and the chile. Light beers are never wrong with spicy food.

Forget that red wine goes with meat and white wine goes with fish—that expression was current when M*A*S*H was still on the air. If you don’t know what M*A*S*H is, then you probably don’t know that we ever had segregation in wine and food pairing. Pay closer attention to the body and weight of the dish. A salmon dish with wild mushrooms would be lovely with a pinot noir. A pork tenderloin with apples and fennel would be fantastic paired with a full-bodied white, such as a California chardonnay or Viognier. It’s possible to pair food with cocktails, but because most cocktails are high-alcohol concoctions with varying levels of bitterness and sweetness, it takes greater skill to get it right.

More from: How to Taste

Fixing Under and Over Salted Dishes
Swapping Sugars in Cooking

© 2018 by Becky Selengut. All rights reserved. Excerpted fromHow to Tasteby permission of Sasquatch Books.