Cooking With Wine or Booze? : Three Cautionary Truths
by Michael Orr
The explosion of cooking shows (and networks) and Tasty Kitchenware ads on Facebook has caused people to get out of their comfort zone with their culinary endeavors. For the most part that is a very good thing. But there are missing nuggets of information too, especially in the Silver Sage generation. Most of us, and nearly all of our mothers, had two dishes where wine was a major component: Chicken Marsala and Beef Bourguignon. Sherry was also in the cupboard, but we never knew exactly what that was for anyway. Now, due to the do-it-yourself enthusiasm, average people are trying to flambé various foods, make red wine reductions, denature proteins, deglaze pans, and do all the fancy stuff that only the most accomplished chefs used to do, but without the cooking-school education.
Here are three truths that will help you be more successful in your endeavors:
No. 1: Throw Away the Idea of a “Cooking Wine”
Well, that and throw away anything in your kitchen labeled as “cooking wine.” Go out to your local vineyard and ask the vintner where they grow their cooking-wine grapes. Be prepared to be shooed off the property. In general, using alcohol in your cooking is meant to accomplish one of three things: add flavor and depth to a dish, denature (tenderize) meat, or deglaze your pan. If you have a bottle labeled “cooking wine” in your home, before you throw it away unscrew the cap and take a sniff. If you are really brave take a sip. Now why would you possibly want to add that to a meal you have worked so hard to prepare?
The general recommendation is: If you wouldn’t drink it by itself, then don’t cook with it. There are exceptions, of course. People in the United States rarely, if ever, stand in the wine aisle and say, “Honey, a nice bottle of Marsala sounds great for our picnic.” As a stand-alone varietal there aren’t many choices of what to do with Marsala, but it certainly adds something unique to a dish like Chicken Marsala. The important thing to remember is that, depending on how you cook your dish, most of the alcohol evaporates out (more on that later) and leaves behind the concentrated flavor of the wine.
When I was an active wine snob, I mean sommelier, I would tell clients that, while you needn’t cook with a wine as expensive as an Opus One, for example, cooking with anything below the quality of the much cheaper Barefoot is a recipe for disappointment.
No. 2: Dining and Driving can be Illegal
I have heard people say, hundreds of times, “It’s ok. The alcohol cooks off.” This piece of culinary folklore is based on ethanol’s relatively low boiling point (173.1°F). It is also largely false, depending on how the meal is cooked. Researchers at the University of Idaho, back in 1992, put this myth to the test. They created a bunch of different recipes with different alcohols and different preparation methods and tested the alcohol content when the dish was ready to be served. Every dish had some level of alcohol remaining after cooking. Some had most of the alcohol remaining. I particularly liked Graham Lawton’s coverage of this topic for New Scientist magazine. His more entertaining, though slightly less scientific, experiment can be seen here. He did prove that you can, in fact, eat your way above the legal blood-alcohol limit.
No. 3: Method Determines Outcome
This truth is really about practical applications for cooking with alcohol, given the information from Nos. 1 and 2.
If you are sober or have an allergy to alcohol, it might be wise to pass on all of these dishes, but there are some common-sense examples that can help illustrate which type of cooking techniques are most likely to allow the alcohol to boil off. For example, take the traditional Italian dish, Penne alla Vodka. It has vodka in its name, so it must be bad, right? Well, made the way my Sicilian godmother in the Bronx taught me is as follows. In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil, garlic, and onion. Shocking start to an Italian dish, I know. You add thinly sliced, chopped prosciutto, let it simmer for a minute or two, then add vodka. The purpose of the vodka is simply to denature or tenderize the prosciutto, but because we are adding it to a hot pan with few other ingredients (before all the tomatoes and cream etc.) it boils away quickly, leaving behind virtually no alcohol. If we had added it later in the process, the outcome would have been significantly different as there would have been many more solids that could absorb and trap the alcohol. The same rule from No. 1 applies about cooking with the cheapest vodka you can find: Don’t do it. It may not have much alcohol, but the cheap stuff can leave a chemical taste behind.
Conversely, cooking a beef roast with a half bottle of Burgundy in a crockpot all day long will leave a significant amount of flavor behind, but also a majority of the alcohol. In any dish that is covered while cooking, the alcohol gets trapped by the lid, condenses, and drips back down in, just like water. Not a bad thing, but definitely something to be aware of.
Using wine and spirits in your cooking can bring about flavors and levels of richness that can definitely enhance a particular dish, but we must understand how and why we are using it if we want to be able to experiment and create effectively. We must also understand that the common folklore isn’t always as accurate as we think. Ciao for now. Go forth and create great flavor!