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Cooking with Wine & Booze

Since we (supposedly) cook off the actual alcohol, what do alcoholic beverages add to a dish? A great question with several answers.

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Let’s go back in time about five decades. We’re in a fancy Manhattan restaurant– French, of course– and our pompous and unsmiling waiter wheels up a gueridon, i.e. a cart for preparing dishes tableside. We watch with great anticipation as this disdainful penguin of a man pours booze all over our Steak au Poivre or Bananas Foster and then– WHOOSH! Flames erupt (as in the photo at the top) as the alcohol ignites, eliciting oohs and ahs across the room and likely inspiring more such orders. (HERE is an entertaining read on the topic.) Pro-Tip: There is absolutely nothing that a restaurant does tableside– with or without pyrotechnics– that it can’t do better behind the closed kitchen doors. In other words, it’s all for show.

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For culinary purposes there are essentially two types of acid– volatile and non-volatile. “Volatile” simply means that it readily evaporates and therefore we can smell it and feel its sharpness in our upper noses. The active ingredient in vinegar– acetic acid– falls into this category. Conversely, the acid in citrus fruits (citric acid) doesn’t actively reveal its presence to the human schnozz. Both acetic and citric acids are widely used in cookery– vinegar, of course, in salad dressings, and lemon or other citrus fruit juices in all kinds of things. HOWEVER, it is the primary and non-volatile acid in wine– tartaric acid– that is most highly valued in the kitchen when reducing stocks down to their shiny essence. Adding wine to a long-simmered braise or a reducing stock adds a wonderful flavor component that is pretty much impossible to replicate.

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Your regular table wine (13-15% alcohol nowadays) is effectively protected from bad microbes at this strength and yet remains susceptible to the action of the acetobacter aceti, a ubiquitous mini-critter that happily converts wine into vinegar. Here we note that wine is pretty close to naturally-occuring, and that vinegar seems like wine’s inevitable afterlife… but we humans can be pretty stinkin’ clever, right? Several centuries ago our ancestors invented the family of “fortified wines,” which begin their existence as regular wine but then benefit from the addition of more strongly alcoholic brandy, thereby raising their alcoholic content to 18-20% and causing the acetobacter to cease & desist. In Ruby-Style Port this also prematurely arrests the fermentation of sugar, thus preserving its signature sweetness. In the “brown ones,” i.e., many but not all types of Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala, the addition of brandy combined with exposure to air allows for oxidation without the formation of vinegar, and the resulting mushroomy and downright funky flavors (“rancio” in culinary-speak; Spanish for “rancid”) are highly prized in sophisticated cookery for their synergy with mushrooms and other dark flavors. This is why we recommended Amontillado Sherry or Malmsey Madeira for the Creamy Wild Mushroom Soup in our “Trio of Winter Soups” essay.

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In conclusion, I obviously believe that much of what we consider serious cookery benefits from the judicious use of alcoholic beverages here and there. But before you run out and stock your pantry with the requisite bottles, please review the following–

Port comes from Portugal, Sherry comes from Spain, Madeira comes from the eponymous Portuguese island in the Atlantic, and Marsala comes from Sicily. Please avoid imitations made elsewhere, and never, EVER purchase “cooking wine” of any kind that isn’t actually real and drinkable wine.

Some table wines are better for cooking than others. Whether using red or white, I personally prefer the elegant and more traditional “Old World” wines from France and Italy to the comparatively fruitier and more powerfully-flavored “New World” wines from America and Australia.

The term “Champagne Sauce” occasionally appears on restaurant menus and specials boards. This might well contain what was once Champagne, but I recommend that you never order anything labeled as such. The single most important factor that makes Champagne what it is– the bubbles– cannot possibly survive a proper cooking process. In other words, it is strictly a marketing term; just like the tableside inferno of yore, it’s all for show… and you’re paying extra for it.

I am utterly unfamiliar with nor can I conjure any culinary application for rosé wine other than its frequent availability as leftovers after a gathering of discerning guests. You can’t go very wrong using red or white as your recipes indicate; in a dire emergency, I suppose you could replace white wine with rosé, but it definitely can’t fill the shoes of a red.

When mentioning Sherry and/or Madeira in recipes, I unfailingly specify AMONTILLADO Sherry and MALMSEY Madeira. These are styles, not brands, and you substitute at your own peril. FINO Sherry and SERCIAL Madeira, for instance, are quite dry, and their paleness reflects a lack of the very same oxidative flavors we seek.

I don’t do much Italian cooking, and therefore I don’t have much need for the Marsala that is a key component of (naturally) Chicken or Veal Marsala. I do recall from my restaurant manager days that Marsala comes labeled either dry or sweet, and that our chef actually used a mix of the two. HERE is a good primer on Marsala.

Full-strength liquors such as Cognac and Armagnac also contribute rancio flavors to a dish, but care must be taken to burn off as much alcohol as possible. Products labeled simply “French Brandy” are generally an inexpensive and acceptable substitute for pricey Cognac and Armagnac. Dark rum (dry & unflavored) is also useful, as is bourbon, on occasion.

And finally, while ethyl alcohol indeed has a lower boiling point than water (173ºF vs. 212ºF) that doesn’t mean that all of the alcohol automatically boils away as you simmer a sauce or flambé a dish. If you cannot or should not consume alcohol, consider completely avoiding its use in your cookery.

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Wow. This is full of great info I can use to apply to my cooking when Danny isn’t home, of course.

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