Cooking with alcohol
Culinary considerations and methods
As the fridge magnet may say, “I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food” — a quote variously attributed to WC Fields or Julia Child (but perhaps neither). There is evidence for the intentional consumption of fermented alcoholic beverages going back to the late stone age (neolithic) period, about 7–12 thousand years ago. In China, wine was being produced by fermenting grapes about 9,000 years ago, as was fermenting diluted honey to make mead. Thus drinking alcohol is part of our evolutionary heritage and, with some sacrifice, you can cook with it too.
Wine can contribute to food flavour, however the main obstacle is the alcohol. In general, the cooking process tries to ‘burn’ this off. At higher levels, alcohol both dominates flavour and holds back the release of flavour molecules during eating, whereas at low levels (~1%), alcohol does the opposite — its volatility helps with the release of small flavour molecules and enhances our appreciation of the food. This is relevant to alcohol levels in drinking wines as well.
In classic dishes simmered in wine, such as coq au vin (usually poulet au vin these days) and boeuf bourguignon, the wine is central to the dish. It adds flavours that interact with the other ingredients, its acidity tenderises the meat proteins and adjusts for the fat (as vinegar does with oil in a vinaigrette), and the alcohol mostly evaporates (it has a boiling point of 78C).
However, even with a long simmer, there will be some residual alcohol. This low level is desirable as it helps with flavour release. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that simmering for 15m reduces the amount of residual alcohol to 40% of its starting level. Longer simmering slowly reduces this further (30m=35%; 1h=25%; 2h=10%; 2.5h=5%). There are a lot of factors that can modify these values though (e.g. pot size and shape, baking vs. stovetop, covered vs. uncovered). The alcohol never goes to 0% because some of it bonds to water and so remains in the liquid phase. The only way to remove the alcohol completely is to boil the pot dry.
The tenderising effect of wine’s acidity (acid is the active ingredient in all marinades) plus the dehydrating effect of its alcohol means that tough cuts are best in this type of cooking — for example, literally a rooster (coq) not a chicken in coq au vin. Roosters are hard to come by though. Most supermarket ‘chickens’ are young birds (averaging about 7 weeks) that can be female or male. Only about 2% of birds are allowed to reach sexual maturity, and these are mostly hens for laying eggs or producing chicks. Just 0.1% of all birds are allowed to develop into roosters.
Simply replacing rooster with chicken in coq au vin usually results in dry meat. An alternative approach is to brine the chicken then cook it sous vide to be nicely juicy and tender. Meanwhile, make the wine-based sauce and cook the vegetables. Combine everything to serve. This way you can concentrate on getting the chicken just right without worrying about under-developing the sauce, and get the sauce just right without worrying about overcooking the chicken. In the traditional approach, if the meat contributes flavour to the sauce then it loses that flavour itself, and if the sauce contributes flavour to the meat then the sauce likewise loses that flavour. The method of separating the meat and sauce steps to optimise both has multiple applications, for example it works well for curries.
Another common use of wine is to ‘deglaze’ a pan. This reduces the wine under high heat, removing much of the alcohol and concentrating flavour before additional ingredients and liquids are added (to make a sauce or begin a risotto for example). A good way to finesse the method is to skip it altogether and have a container of already-reduced wine in the fridge. This reduction can be added at any time during the cooking process to more carefully adjust flavour and acidity. Accumulate the reduction over time using leftover wine (does that happen?), or just purchase an adequate dry wine for the purpose. Reduce by about one-fifth and store in the fridge. Don’t reduce any further because there is a risk of caramelising sugars and introducing a new and probably unwelcome flavour. Avoid reducing sweet wines for the same reason. Think of it as a condiment.
Wines are usually simmered or reduced, whereas spirits are flambéed. The flamboyant flambé relies on a spirit’s high alcohol content, and this is not much reduced by a flambé. The same USDA study reports that 75% of the initial alcohol remains after flambéing, meaning that a 40% ABV spirit, flambéed and served immediately, will be 30% ABV. There will always be a limit to alcohol reduction during a flambé — it’s not possible to flambé a wine for example. Further, the flambé is not what causes this modest reduction anyway.
The alcohol vapour released by the spirit is what ignites, not the spirit itself. The flambé doesn’t reduce alcohol content, rather it sets alight the alcohol that has already been released by heating the spirit (on the stovetop or by pouring it over hot food). It is the heating and not the igniting that does the job. While the temperature of the flame can exceed a massive 500C (stovetop method), it has negligible heating effect at the surface of the liquid. The flambé also doesn’t seem to contribute additional flavour to the dish (it is not clear how it could). As well as probably being pointless, it can also be dangerous (flambéing table-side is banned in some jurisdictions). As suggested for wine, a more refined (but less theatric) option is to gently simmer a spirit to reduce its alcohol content (beyond what a flambé can do) and store it for use as required.
There is at least one application where it is desirable to retain the alcohol — frozen desserts such as a sorbet. While it is mainly the high sugar levels that retard the formation of ice crystals in a sorbet, the alcohol in some recipes can help and the cold suppresses the perception of alcohol-flavour. Alcohol doesn’t freeze until -114C, so spirits such as gin can be stored in the freezer, meaning an icy-cold martini is just that one step closer.