Cooking With Alcohol…Can I Leave It Out?


I receive lots and lots of emails when I post a recipe with alcohol included in the ingredients.  “Can I substitute water, broth or juice for the alcohol?”  The reasons for the substitute are all different and the answer is always yes, you can.  However, cooking with wine, beer and spirits is more about how the alcohol improves flavor perception in a couple of very different ways.  Alcohol actually helps the cook in the kitchen more than it does in creating a civilized atmosphere at the dinner table.

Just like salt, alcohol brings out the flavor in food.  Alcohol does this by evaporation and molecular bonding.

Think about what happens when you open an aged bottle of whiskey.  Once the cap is off, you immediately get a whiff of overwhelming aromas.  The reason this occurs has to do with the volatility of alcohol molecules, meaning they evaporate rapidly, reaching your nose quickly.

This is also what happens when strawberries are macerated in Pinot Noir or a splash of schnapps is added to a fruit salad, you are helping convey the fruit’s aroma to the nostrils, ultimately enhancing the overall enjoyment of the food.  However, this “volatility effect” works only when low concentrations of alcohol are present (about 1% or less).  At 5% or more, the alcohol will dominate any fruit aroma you were trying to bring forward.

Food is also the beneficiary of alcohol’s ability to bond with both fat and water molecules (is biochemistry coming back to you now?).  In this way, alcohol bridges the gap between our aroma receptors (which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat) and food (which consists primarily of water).  This is very important because most of the great “flavor” in food comes from aromas in the nose rather than tastes in the mouth. (This is why you really don’t taste anything when you have a stuffy nose.)

Let’s think about this in terms of making a marinade or a brine with both water and fat soluble ingredients.  If you take the flavor compounds in certain aromatics such as garlic, herbs or other fat soluble ingredients, alcohol helps carry those compounds into the meat that’s soaking in the marinade or brine.  But alcohol also helps carry water soluble flavor compounds into the meat as well.  Water soluble flavors would include sour, sweet, salty and bitterness.  With alcohol’s effort, the result is more flavor and aroma into the marinated food.  Even one tablespoon of a neutral-tasting vodka considerably improves the flavor penetration of any given marinade.

The same thing is happening when a piece of meat is basted with alcohol during cooking.  Flavor compounds are being carried into the meat, improving its flavor.

The same concept is seen when creating a reduction sauce.  Deglazing the pan with wine after searing meat not only releases the proteins stuck to the pan, but by dissolving these browned bits in alcohol, you are carrying additional flavor to the sauce.  Using a nonalcoholic alternative leaves you with a sauce less intense in flavor.

Just remember when it comes to flavor-enhancement with alcohol, less is always more. 

Does Alcohol “Burn Off” During Cooking?

Well, it depends, and is determined by several factors: how much heat was applied, the dimensions of the cookware, cooking and standing time and most importantly…how much alcohol was added.

Let’s say you making flambe, about 75% of the alcohol is retained in the dish.  However, a mixture that has been simmered or baked for an hour will retain only about 25% of the added alcohol. 

I hope this answers some of your questions and provides understanding as to why we cook with alcohol.

Post a Comment

32 Comments

  1. Thanks for this good info. Cathy. You are so smart!!!!!

  2. Wayne 2

    Also alcohol breaks down some of the graining in meats making them more tender when cooked…I cook with spirits all the time and can’t imagine not using them…especially on a cheaper cut of meat.

  3. Also tomatoes can only reach their true potential in cooking when you add alcohol. There are certain flavor compounds that are only solvent in alcohol.

  4. Mary 4

    My husband is a card carrying member of Alcoholics Anonymous so I absolutely never use any added alcohol in my cooking. I generally replace wines or beer in recipes with broths or rich stocks and have always been pleased with the results.

  5. Julie 5

    What an excellent post. I love reading your blog for the gobs of info you hand out. Well, also the recipes, and your handsome boys.
    I love cooking with alcohol, and it’s nice to have another reason than “it tastes good”. I feel like less of a lush now 😉

  6. Lisa 6

    See, I always think, should I buy that rum for only one tablespoon? Now, I will! Thanks so much for this, you are truly informed!

  7. This is wonderful information Cathy, and yes I will continue to cook with wine and alcohol. They don’t call me the galloping gourmet for nothing:D

  8. Liz C. 8

    All good informative things to know. I cook with wine a lot & often with Vodka, Sherry or Brandy. Love the flavors!

  9. Julia 9

    Great info! I had actually thought that all the alcohol burned off during cooking. Interesting to learn that it doesn’t

  10. Barbie with a T 10

    Thanks for the information regarding cooking with wine. I tell you, I just cannot make a good spaghetti sauce without a little red wine in it. I add wine to almost every dish I make, in fact. Shrimp scampi, risotto, (beer in my gumbo), and just about anything that has meat in it….I add wine or beer. You are absolutely right, alcohol brings out the flavors like no other ingredient. Lemon juice is my second choice for flavor enhancer. So start making that wine, and I will drink it and cook with it!

  11. velva 11

    Cheers to an awesome post!!

  12. Sunny 12

    Thank you so much for this post, I’ve been wondering this for ages, especially since we generally don’t have alchohol in the house. What would you reccomend as a substitute in sweet dishes? (instead of broth) Just water?

  13. I love cooking with alcohol. Sometimes I even put it in my food. 😉

  14. Memoria 14

    I will NEVER bring alcohol into my home for any reason. However, there does exist non-alcoholic, cooking wine that one can use as a substitute called Fre. I went to the website for this product after purchasing and using it in a dish and found out that there still contains a small amount of alcohol, though. I hope I cooked that scant amount out. I won’t be getting that product again, but for those who may have a different reason for not cooking with alcohol, using a non-alcoholic cooking wine may be the way to go.

  15. dawn 15

    Thank you for this awesome post, now I know the method to my madness!!

  16. Jen 17

    Thanks for the great information. As a wine lover, I am always open to some wine education.

  17. Fascinating stuff. I’ve been reading a lot about alcohol as a flavor conductor recently, but none so well-explained as this. I always assumed I had some kind of latent alcoholism when I always felt the need to cook with wine and spirits. 😀 Now I have an excuse!

  18. Marjie 19

    I don’t drink alcohol, because I don’t feel I need the extra calories. I do, however, have a bottle of red and a bottle of white just for cooking. I’m not hostile, just want my calories in a coconut custard pie instead of a glass – much the same reason I avoid fancy coffee drinks!

  19. Fun site! I came looking for something to do with chocolate baking squares and sweetened condensed milk, about all I have at the immediate moment to whip something up for hubby who has a sudden craving for something sweet.

    I looked at your bio, and wow, what an undertaking, the vineyard. Cheers to that! And Polish, too – :-) I’m hosting a Polish exchange student this summer, actually two. If I get over to the valley (I’m in Central OR) maybe I can take them to visit a Polish/American vineyard? Okay, nix that, I’m a total stranger. Unless you give tours to strangers, then we’re okay.

  20. Tupper 21

    Cooking w/o alcohol = boring.

  21. I always wondered about that.

  22. Biochemistry never came to me – even while sitting in class right in front of the chalkboard. Yet I found this post fascinating. Thanks for breaking it all down for us Cathy and in such a ‘palatable’ way:)

  23. elra 24

    Very informative Cathy, thank you ….

  24. Very informative post – awesome, thanks… sarah at link to blog.candiquik.com

  25. Great information here! And, great inspiration for adding flavor from a bottle.

  26. ERNEST 27

    Hello, 2nd time i’ve posted here. Excellent advice, i really appreciate it. i’m going to start adding some alcohol to all of my dishes and see if i can discern any difference.

    at the same time, does it matter what type of alcohol is used? or what proof is used? should you be using wine, hard liquor, etc?

    basically, i want to experiment, but i don’t want to buy a variety of liquors…maybe just something that can sit for a long time (so…not red or white).

    Thanks!

  27. smartest woman i know when it comes to making alcohol, cooking with it, drinking it and well you know…I am a fan.

  28. Donna 29

    The words of Julia Child come to mind:

    “I love to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.”

    Thanks for the most excellent info!

  29. FanOfCooking80 30

    Cathy thanks for the post. Really informative. Here’s an article on cooking with alcohol you might find interesting!

    link to finecooking.com

    I think they copied you!!

  30. Alcohol is essential to bring out the flavors of various ingredients. Food can be made without it but it wont taste as good.

  31. I really thankful to you for this great read!! You did a very great job, keep it up.