NOW YOU'RE REALLY COOKING... WITH SPIRITS

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Chris Alt

I remember distinctly the first time I realized that people use alcohol to enhance cooking. I couldn’t have been older than 5 or maybe 6. My parents were grilling a chicken on the back porch, my dad cracked open a couple of cans of beer and doused the bird, and I was scandalized. I remember protesting, “I can’t have that stuff! I’m a kid!” over my parents’ reassurance that it was going to be fine. Plus, I couldn’t imagine it tasting good with beer poured all over it. Beer smelled gross (boy, have I done a 180 on that position over the decades!) But once I was talked into trying the chicken, I was instantly a believer. It was even more moist and tasty than usual, and the reason wasn’t lost on me. I came to realize that using alcohol to enhance a dish was far from an uncommon idea.

 
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Everything from bread to meat to pasta sauce to desserts can benefit from having a little alcohol added to the prep work. Hilariously, the cycle repeated itself recently when we made salted margarita cupcakes with a tequila lime buttercream frosting. This was much to the consternation of my young daughters, who thought using tequila meant they would be excluded from the cupcakery (they were not, and the cupcakes were delicious).

 
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How does it work, though? Without getting too bogged down in scientific jargon, the answer lies in molecules. Alcohol molecules are considered volatile because they evaporate very quickly. That’s the reason the aroma of a good bottle of Bourbon hits your nose so quickly after you open it. Now, consider how much more you enjoy your food when it’s especially aromatic. When your food is prepared with alcohol, the volatility of the alcohol helps to enhance the smell of the food. But that’s not all! According to an article on finecooking.com:

“It bonds with both fat and water molecules. In this way, alcohol bridges the gap between our aroma receptors (which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat) and food (which consists primarily of water). This is crucial, because most of the great “flavor” in food comes from aromas in the nose rather than tastes in the mouth. (Notice that you can’t fully “taste” your food when you have a stuffy nose.)”

Consider this the next time you want to maximize the flavor of a marinade or brine! Keep in mind, though, that there is a general misconception that alcohol used for cooking will “burn off”. This is a myth. Some alcohol will be retained, although the exact volume will depend on multiple factors including heat, time, and amount used. In general, the longer a dish is cooked the more alcohol will evaporate during the prep. So marinating a chicken with beer is still pretty unlikely to get your concerned five year-old drunk.

If you have any additional questions about using alcohol to enhance your cooking, come by Colonial and our friendly and well-informed staff will be happy to help!

Jodie SpearsComment