Everyone knows that a good glass of wine with a meal can really take it to the next level. Personally, I never know if it’s all up to that moment when you perfectly match a bottle to a dish, where the flavours just sing in perfect harmony or, after the inevitable second glass, you’re juuuuust tipsy enough not to notice any harsh notes in either the food or drink. Either way, food and alcohol just seem to go hand in hand.
For those of us who are as likely to be found behind the stove as they are to be sitting at the table, sipping the drink of their choice, the powers of alcohol go beyond the glass. A splash of alcohol here and there when preparing a dish can help boost the flavour of your food. The reason why? Science, of course!
Ok, ok, I know that not everyone gets as excited about food science as me but this is some pretty cool stuff!
First, lets talk about flavour. All food has flavour. Obvious, right? But how does that flavour translate to your palate while you eat? It has a lot to do with molecular bonding and solubility. There are certain flavours in food that only fully come out when water or another liquid is introduced. These are called water-soluble flavours and can be easily described as sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Now, those highlight flavours we like to use that are often labeled “aromatics”, those are fat-soluble. Their full potential is only realized once a fat is introduced to a recipe. That’s why butter and oil pretty much always makes food taste better. Not only do they taste delicious on their own (shout out to all those weirdos like me who have just taken a spoon to a butter dish!), but fats also help bring all of the deliciousness out of things like garlic, sage, thyme, and the like!
What about alcohol? Where does it land in this whole flavour solubility thing? Well, alcohol is basically a kitchen wizard in that it can do both! Alcohol carries both fat- and water-soluble flavours to your palate and it can even open up those pesky flavours that aren’t noticed without it! Tomatoes, for instance, contain both fat- and water-soluble flavours as well as some notes that are alcohol-soluble. So next time you’re making tomato sauce, give it a little splash of red or white wine or even a little nip of vodka and really make those tomatoes sing!
Another way that we taste all of the deliciousness that food has to offer is through aroma. Ever notice how food just doesn’t seem to taste as good when you’re all stuffed up? That’s because your nose pulls a lot of the weight when it comes to taste.
Things like heat, proximity, and chopping increase the aroma of food but alcohol has a really neat trick up its sleeve when it comes to scent. Alcohol evaporates quicker than water, therefore it helps carry aroma. You know how as soon as you open a good bottle of red wine or a decanter of whiskey, you kind of get punched in the face with its bouquet? That’s because of evaporation. The same thing happens when you add booze to a dish. The evaporating alcohol lifts aroma into the air, bringing them up to your nose more rapidly.
Well, whatever the reason, cooking with booze is a fantastic way to experiment with flavour and help your food really shine! While it is easy to add a splash or two here and there to a dish, here are a few tips and tricks to help get you started:
- Do you want to drink it? If not, don’t put it in your food. Cooking helps concentrate the flavour profile of alcohol so use something good enough to drink but not so fancy that your bank account will have a fit when the wine hits the pan. In our house, we have a white and a red that we always have on hand – save the really snazzy stuff for the table but anything you’d be willing to open on a Tuesday to enjoy with dinner is a good bet.
- Alcohol should compliment, not overpower your meal so always start small.
- Strength of flavour should match strength of flavour in what you’re cooking. For example, beef can take a really rich red or strong dark liquor. Pork, in my opinion, is best friends with white wines, beers, and ciders. Chicken pulls the classic chicken move by being good friends with most – white wine, red wine, beer, and maybe some vodkay tomato sauce! For seafood, I’d stick to light – white wine, vodka, gin, tequila, etc.
- Sweets are probably the most versatile. They can take a good hit from wines, bubbly, beer, cider, or darker liquor. That hit of acid, bitterness, or smoke that alcohol can provide does wonders for fruits, chocolates, and sugars. It can add depth without overpowering the delicate flavours in sweets. Think whiskey, rum, or brandy infused caramel, red wine poached pears, or stout chocolate cake!
- And that old adage that you can cook off all of the alcohol? Well, it’s not true…
Alcohol does not completely burn off when cooked. The factors that determine how much remains at the end of cooking a dish include the amount of alcohol added, the amount of heat applied, the cooking and standing time, and the surface area of the food and cook surface.
Here is a basic chart that shows approximately how much alcohol is retained during different cooking methods:
Cooking Method Evaporated Retained
Flambéd 25% 75%
No heat, left
uncovered 30% 70%
simmered, 1hr 75% 25%
simmered, 2.5hr 95% 5%
The moral of the story is that alcohol and food are best friends so why not open that bottle of wine a little earlier than your guests arrive, pour some into your meal, and maybe enjoy a little glass for yourself!