It always amuses me when I meet the ‘non drinkers’ of this world who don’t think twice about pouring a bottle of whiskey into a Christmas cake, a jug of red wine into a beef stew or boiling a ham in a vat of Linden Village! I can’t tell you how many times I have floated out of teetotal households having sampled their ‘Mammy’s’ sherry trifle or Bailey’s cheesecake. Recently I found my cheeks flushing after a wonderful homemade but heavy handed Tiramisu. While we might sometimes frown at those who are overly fond of a drop, it appears to me that if you just eat your alcohol rather than drinking it, then you are considered practically a Pioneer regardless of the quantities. Oh and by the way, the crowd that claim “the alcohol burns off in the cooking” are using a big broad statement that isn’t strictly true.
There are no hard and fast rules about how much alcohol remains in a finished dish after cooking. Of course any alcohol added to cold food, such as sherry trifle or tiramisu for example retains all the potency it had when it was still in the bottle! This shouldn’t be a problem for adults, but it might be a consideration for unsuspecting children. Should their behaviour change suddenly and they become more animated or boisterous, it might not be the additives in the fizzy drinks that are causing the problem. It is also worth noting that alcohol is a naturally occurring substance in many foods, particularly those with high sugar content such as fruit; those overripe apples can be a cocktail to a four year old! With hot dishes when food is cooked under a high heat and for long periods of time (soups and stews) then you can rest assured that the majority of the alcohol evaporates. Here’s the science bit; pure alcohol boils at 173 degrees F., a lower temperature than water which boils at 212 degrees F. What you will often find is that the recipes that want some of the alcohol to remain in the finished dish will have instructions to add the alcohol near the end of the cooking process thus preventing it from boiling out. Generally the amount of booze used in most recipes is usually minimal and is spread out over a relatively large volume of food.
The other common way to use spirits with food is for flambé purposes. Usually the alcohol itself is heated before applying it to hot (never warm) food and then ignited quickly. If everything isn’t sufficiently hot you might find it difficult to ignite in the first place resulting in the drink sinking into the food and not burning off. This can often lend an overpowering and unwanted flavour to the dish. Bottom line; unless you’re confident with a match, a bottle of brandy and your dinner or dessert, then I’d leave the ‘F’ word to the professionals.
My thoughts turned to alcohol and cooking when one of my customers told me about prawns cooked in vodka. It was her husband’s recipe and it sounded good. When I got a chance I googled it (yes, to Google is a new verb!) “prawns in vodka”. Well, unsurprisingly they’re all at it; from vodka enthusiasts to celebrity chefs. I couldn’t find a classic vodka and prawn recipe but there are plenty out there on the web to try. It got my own imagination going and I found myself staring into the alcohol cabinet and wondering what else I could do.
I think every household has some weird or wonderful underused mystery bottle. Usually it is a find from holiday or a gift from someone travelling, although these days with baggage and liquid restrictions those bottled gifts are definitely on the decline. I found a wonderful bottle of dark, dark rum from Holland and two or three bottles of unopened amaretto. I think we were on an amaretto coffee kick after one trip several years ago and so received a few gifts in quick succession. Our interest soon waned and so the amaretto has sat in the cabinet since. Until now that is because I added it to a basic oat flapjack recipe along with some glace cherries and all I can say is that it was a triumph! Of course I couldn’t just leave it at that and so I tried other batches with some bourbon and a few cream liqueurs, but the cherry and amaretto combination was definitely the best.
There are thousands of recipes that use alcohol as an ingredient. You’ll find it in sauces, marinades or as a main flavour. In some recipes, the alcohol is an essential component to achieve a desired chemical reaction in a dish. Alcohol causes many foods to release flavours that cannot be experienced without the alcohol interaction. For example beer contains yeast which leavens breads and batters, hence beer battered fish. Of course beer and stout are also good in beef pies. Some alcoholic beverages can help break down tough fibres through marinades. Wine and Kirsch were originally added to fondue because the alcohol lowers the boiling point of the cheese which helps prevent curdling.
So what do you do if a recipe calls for alcohol and you either don’t want to use it or haven’t got it? Well sometimes you may have to choose a different recipe (flambes are a particular case in point and there is no substitute for beer in batter). However there are plenty of substitutions for flavouring. For example there is no reason why I couldn’t have used almonds in my flapjacks rather than amaretto. When it comes to spirits and a particular flavour is specified, use the corresponding fruit juice, such as apple, apricot, cherry, peach, raspberry etc. or grape juice. Corresponding flavoured extracts can be used for small amounts. In the same way grape juice can often be substituted for wine. Cointreau or Gran Marnier are common enough but you could substitute with orange juice (just thicken and reduce it slightly). Apple cider or apple juice can be used in place of cider. Apparently rum can be substituted with pineapple juice and a little almond extract and chicken stock with a little white wine vinegar works where white wine is needed. There are many, many more and alcohol substitute charts are plentiful online. We will put one up on the James Whelan Butchers’ website so do drop by if you need to check it out.
Finally as a rule of thumb darker drink works better with darker meats and vice versa. For example beef in a red wine sauce or chicken in a white wine sauce, and whiskey on your porridge first thing in the morning may not be the best idea! Other than that do experiment and don’t forget to drop me a line if you come up with anything new.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers