I remember sitting at the counter in my grandfather’s linoleum and laminate kitchen, watching him cook. He would invariably reach for the “sauce,” always knowing, as if by instinct, when to add it. A little splash of bourbon this time, a little splash of beer the next, his pan would sizzle as the tidy kitchen took on a new aroma.
Sweet and mysterious, that whiff of enchantment would fill the air. My nose and curiosity would command me to scoot up on my stool for a better peek over the counter. What was this delicious spell that Granddaddy was concocting? And why did the magic always seem to happen when he released that liquid genie from the bottle?
As a child, I never managed to solve the mystery. But I knew that Granddaddy was “hitting the sauce,” and that was a good thing.
Those memories had me pondering the whole concept of spirited cooking. Why cook with alcohol?
To better understand the chemical process that takes place when alcohol is added to food, I consulted my family chemist, James Jones (also known as son No. 4).
“Alcohol is a good solvent, and since some elements don’t dissolve in pure water, alcohol can help dissolve ingredients and suspend their flavor in cooking,” said James. Simply put, it makes food taste better.
In the words of chef David Duval, proprietor of the Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen in North Chesterfield, Virginia, “using alcohol adds dimension in your cooking to intensify, enhance, and accent the aroma and flavor of food. Bourbon, rum, or wine bring a depth to dishes; a flavor that just wasn’t there before the spirits were added.”
His spirited creations include a bloody mary oyster appetizer, a roasted chestnut and smoked bacon soup made with sherry, and several old-fashioned desserts and custards spiked with bourbon. One of his favorite preparations uses Four Roses Bourbon to create a brown butter “fat wash” that helps add “huge depth” to his cooking.
Chef Kaui Stryhn, executive chef at The Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Virginia, agrees. “Alcohol adds a sass to cooking—a little punch that intensifies the flavors and the enjoyment of eating,” said Stryhn. He often incorporates alcohol into his dishes, such as his popular sherried oyster stew and a smoked pork belly appetizer with apple-bourbon foster sauce. After the main meal, “adding alcohol for a tableside dessert preparation like cherries jubilee, bananas foster, or baked Alaska provides … a level of excitement that adds to guests’ enjoyment.”
Rabia Kamara, a recent dessert competition winner on the Food Network and owner of Ruby Scoops Ice Cream and Sweets in Richmond’s Northside, adds rum or whiskey to help impart a “roundness of flavor” to her homemade desserts and ice creams.
Whether it’s your favorite liquor, wine, or beer, each spirit has its own specific flavor profile, so don’t be afraid to experiment along the way. Here are a few of my go-to guidelines, including advice from the trifecta of Virginia chefs, for cooking with spirits.
First, a Note on Cooking Off Alcohol
According to James, our family chemist, “Alcohol’s ethanol content [the compound that intoxicates], has a very low boiling point, so most of the ethanol is evaporated out of a dish if higher temperatures and longer cooking times are used.”
But the key word is “most”—it’s important to note that contrary to popular belief, the alcohol will not completely cook off, even with a cooking time of several hours. A study from the USDA’s Nutrient Data lab revealed that food simmered in alcohol for 15 minutes still retained 40 percent of the alcohol; after an hour of cooking, 25 percent remained; and after 2 1/2 hours, 5 percent still remained.
Pick the Right Bottle
Save the really good stuff for drinking, as the finer nuances of your top-shelf alcohol brands will be lost in the cooking process. In the words of Stryhn, “Let’s go ahead and bust that myth that you have to use top shelf spirits for cooking—you just don’t need to break the bank.”
On the flip side, don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink at all, or an old bottle that’s been open and sitting in the cabinet or refrigerator for days. A good rule of thumb: If it’s drinkable or serve-worthy, it’s typically cook-worthy.
Put Your Nose in It
The nose has a powerful memory, so use it to notice aromas in your ingredients as you prepare them and be inspired to get creative with wine choices. Sniff the aromas of those fresh ingredients like herbs, sautéed garlic, and lemon zest, and let your nose lead you in choosing a fruity or acidic wine to complement and enhance your fresh flavors.
Choose the Right Pan
If cooking with something acidic, like wine, use non-reactive pans and skillets (such as those made from stainless steel or enameled cast iron) to avoid discoloration when the acid from the alcohol hits the pan.
Add Pizzazz to Meats, Poultry, and Seafood
When marinating meat, let alcohol be your friend to add extra flavor. Dark spirits like bourbon, stout, whiskey, or red wine pair best with dark meats like steak, beef, or pork. Likewise, lighter-colored choices like white wine, vodka, and tequila best complement poultry and seafood.
Just remember to start by adding a few tablespoons at first, and don’t let meat marinate in alcohol for too long, as it can break down the meat proteins and destroy the texture of the food. Generally, marinades that contain alcohol should be used from 30 minutes to no longer than four hours. The thinner the cut, the faster it will break down. Gauge marinating times with your meat cut and thickness in mind.
Make a Spirited Sauce
When pan-cooking a plain steak or chicken breast, finish with a few splashes of spirits to create a quick and delicious sauce on the side. Mushrooms, onions, shallots, garlic, and herbs can be enhanced by a few splashes of wine or sherry, typically best added after browning or sautéing in butter as a deglazing aid.
Here are five easy steps to perfect your deglazing technique:
1. Sauté your aromatics (onions, shallots, garlic) in your leftover pan drippings, adding a tablespoon of oil or butter if needed.
2. Take your pan away from the cooking burner as a safety precaution.
3. Pour in your alcohol, starting with a modest tablespoon of wine, bourbon, sherry, beer, etc., gradually increasing amounts to taste.
4. Return the pan to a slow boil to reduce the alcohol, while scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits and food particles.
5. Add cream, butter, or other desired ingredients to the deglazed bits to finish your sauce, gravy, or topping.
RECIPE: Sautéed Mushrooms and Shallots With Sherry
This aromatic sauté of mushrooms, shallots, and sherry dresses up steak, meat, poultry, or even baked potatoes in minutes. It’s also a secret ingredient that adds a flavor boost to baked quiche fillings.
- 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter
- 1 package (8 ounces) white mushrooms (sliced with stems removed) or pre-sliced caps
- 1 small shallot or 1 heaping tablespoon chopped shallot
- 1/4 cup sherry (I use Extra Amontillado)
- A few dashes white pepper
- Optional: 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped herbs (parsley, basil, chives are good choices)
In a small skillet, melt the butter on medium-low heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and chopped shallot, sautéing until translucent (about 4 to 6 minutes). Remove from heat and add the sherry, stirring. Return to the burner and bring to a slow boil. Turn to low and let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add herbs if desired and serve.
RECIPE: Granddaddy’s Pan-Seared Steak With Bourbon Sauce
Quick and easy to prepare, these pan-seared steaks won’t set off the smoke alarm. The bourbon sauce will create a magical aroma in your kitchen.
- 4 (4-ounce, 1-inch thick) Sirloin strip steaks, with fat trimmed and reserved
- 1 to 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Bourbon Sauce
- 1/3 cup bourbon
- 2 tablespoons Dijon or stone-ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
- 1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/3 cup milk (or substitute light cream or half and half for a thicker sauce)
Sprinkle the steaks with pepper and set on a plate at room temperature.
Heat a heavy iron skillet over high heat. Grease the pan lightly with the reserved meat fat or add a tablespoon of cooking oil if no meat fat is available. Sprinkle about half of the salt in the skillet. Sear steaks quickly on one side. Remove and add remaining salt to the skillet. Sear steaks on the other side and reduce heat to medium to continue cooking until desired doneness. Remove the steaks to a warm platter and tent loosely with foil to keep warm while making the bourbon sauce.
In a small bowl, whisk together the bourbon, mustard, Worcestershire, brown sugar, soy sauce, and parsley (Granddaddy technique: Crush the parsley between thumb and index finger before adding) and set aside.
Add the butter to the skillet and melt over low heat. Add onion and garlic and cook on low heat until translucent (about 4 to 5 minutes).
Add the bourbon mixture from the bowl, stirring slowly with a wooden spoon and increasing the heat to bring ingredients to a slow boil. Add the milk or cream and stir, heating for a few more minutes until all ingredients are combined.
Add the steaks back to the pan for a minute to reheat and plate to serve.
Flambé for Flavor and Fun
A flambé—adding liquor to a dish and igniting it to add a flame in the pan—can add an element of visual drama to both savory and sweet dishes. The technique burns off the harsh alcohol taste, while retaining an extra dimension of flavor. Roasts, chickens, and other game birds pair well with spirits such as gin, vermouth, or brandy for a savory flambé, while desserts such as bananas foster (prepared with dark rum) and cherries jubilee (cooked with brandy) are classic sweet options.
Spike the Dessert
Bring out the rum, bourbon, amaretto, or brandy to add boozy deliciousness to just about any dessert. Try a spoonful of bourbon to add a twist to cakes, puddings, and frostings, or use rum to create a sophisticated glaze (my quick and delicious rum sauce is a go-to favorite). In moderate amounts (1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup), alcohol added in batters before cooking, or to frostings in the final preparation stage, will impart a little depth without overpowering the dessert, while soaking fruits, cakes, or pastries in alcohol for an hour or more will hike the spike level to impart a boozier taste.
RECIPE: Quick and Yummy Rum Dessert Glaze
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup rum (I use Pusser’s)
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Stir in the water, add the sugars, and increase heat to bring to a boil for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn off the flame or remove the pan from the heat to add the rum. Stir to combine and reheat for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Serve hot over butter pound cake or ice cream—or both—for a quick and elegant dessert.
Strike a Balance
Do add alcohol in moderation. The goal is to keep the nuance of the alcohol without having it overwhelm the dish. Start on the low end, and gradually add more as you go. It’s easy to add more, but nearly impossible to retract once too much is added. Don’t rely on specified recipe quantities over your own instincts. (Hint: Taste your food!)
RECIPE: Beer Chili
Beer adds a rich earthy flavor to chili. I like to use a lager, porter, or stout, as they tend to be lower on the hops scale.
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 pound ground beef chuck (I use 80 percent lean/20 percent fat)
- 1 14 1/2-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
- 1 16-ounce can Great Northern white beans
- 1 1/2 ounce package chili seasoning mix
- 1 15-ounce can “Chili Starter” seasoned and diced tomatoes
- 2 to 3 dried chiles (I use japonés red chile peppers)
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1 small poblano or jalapeño pepper, seeded
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 12-ounce bottle beer
- Leftover steak or pork, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
Brown the ground beef in a large skillet or pan over medium-high heat.
Add the diced tomatoes, beans, and chili seasoning mix, stirring until all ingredients are well-blended. Turn down the heat to simmer.
In a blender, add the chili starter tomatoes, dried chiles, garlic cloves, garlic salt, poblano or jalapeño pepper, and beef stock. Blend on high until all ingredients are pulverized into a liquid.
Pour the contents of the blender into the pan with the ground beef mixture. Add the cumin and then the beer, turning up the heat to bring ingredients to a slow boil. Add leftover meat or pork pieces if desired and reduce heat to a simmer. Chili will thicken as it simmers.
Serve with assorted toppings such as grated cheddar cheese, chopped onions, cilantro, and tortilla chips. Add a dollop of sour cream to each serving bowl of chili for a silky richness.