Since spirits have a long shelf life, you don’t need to use them all up right away after uncorking a bottle. From summer cookouts to winter holidays, our liquor cabinet tends to build up a surplus during the year. And while you can make cocktails from your extra liquor, why would anybody want to miss out on a myriad of clever culinary uses? From preserving fruit to enhancing and enriching sauces and glazes, spirits can boost sweet and savory recipes by carefully adding complexity and elegance.
However, cooking with alcohol is often misunderstood and a lot of people have misconceptions and wrongly placed notions when it comes to this. What exactly is alcohol’s role in cooking? Does alcohol evaporate while cooking? Here’s a simple guide that can swiftly take you through cooking with alcohol, and clear all your doubts.
Alcohol For A Flavor Boost
Alcohol in whatever form – beer, rum, sake or wine – can act as a great flavor enhancer. It can be used to tenderize meat in its different marinades or concentrate flavor when simmered down into sauces.
Alcohol is as versatile, as tipsy it may get you. Beer can add a superb flavor to your fish taco or make a moist bread; while vodka, rum, or other hard liquors can jazz up pasta sauces or give your grilled or roasted meats a final glazed touch.
Alcohol For Aroma
Since alcohol molecules are volatile in nature, they carry soft peaty smoke and subtle caramel aromas to your olfactory sensors in your nose. So adding a splash of kirsch to your food salad or macerating peaches in Pinot Noir conveys the fruit’s aroma to our nostrils, and can make the experience even more enjoyable.
This ‘aromatic effect’ works best when a dish contains 1 percent or less concentration of alcohol. If the concentration exceeds more than 5 percent, of course, the aroma of the alcohol then dominates the dish.
What Exactly Does Alcohol Do?
Alcohol has the remarkable quality of bonding with both water and fat molecules, which allows to bring sweet and savory flavors to food.
Our aroma receptors only respond to molecules that can be dissolved in fat, and alcohol kind of bridges the gap between our nostrils and food, which is primarily water-based. This is crucial because most of the flavor actually comes from the aroma, more than the taste in the mouth. (Think of the times when you can’t fully taste your food with a stuffy nose!)
This ability of alcohol to bond with both fat and water is very well illustrated by brine or marinade. In this case, the flavor compounds in aromatics like herbs, garlic, or other seasonings are fat-soluble, which means they only dissolve in fat. Since alcohol bonds well with fat, it helps carry those flavorful, aromatic compounds into the meat when soaking in the marinade. Moreover, at the same time, alcohol also carries other flavor compounds that may be water-soluble into the meat’s cells, like sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Alcohol can actually bring much more flavor and aroma to marinated food for very little: just add a tablespoon of neutral-tasting vodka to your marinade or brine to noticeably improve the flavor penetration.
Does Alcohol Evaporate While Cooking?
Alcohol is an awesome ingredient to add rich flavor to a lot of different types of food. But contrary to popular belief, the entire alcohol content doesn’t always evaporate before the food is served.
A study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory found that it can simply take more than two and a half hours of cooking for all the alcohol content to be cooked out. In fact, the amount of alcohol that remains actually depends in part on the method used for cooking. For example, when you pour brandy on foods and set them alight, an astounding 75 percent of the alcohol remains even after the flames die down.
The study also revealed when exactly the alcohol content evaporates with cooking. When alcohol is added to food which is then cooked for 15 minutes, 40 percent of the alcohol will be preserved. And if the cooking goes on for an hour, only about 25 percent will retain, but even after you’ve cooked your dish for more than 2.5 hours, 5 percent of alcohol will still remain in your food. However, the amount of alcohol in an individual helping of the food will be quite low.
Although alcohol is mostly a fun thing to discuss or add to anything we eat or drink, it can be a cause of concern for people due to many reasons, including to avoid an alcoholic relapse, protect a fetus or avoid adverse interactions with certain medications. If you’re one of these people, your best bet would be to always ask if a particular dish is cooked with alcohol before you order it. And if you’re a dinner guest, you should always let your host know that you’re avoiding alcohol in all forms.