Monday, February 16, 2009

Back to Basics: Cooking with Alcohol and a Super Easy Project

My mom has a magnet on her refrigerator that says "I love cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." I think it is great, but I would actually reverse the order - and I really like drinking wine. 

Of course if you, or those you are serving, have problems with alcohol, by all means, don't use it. But if your only qualm is that you don't like drinking it, whatever "it" may be in the way of alcohol, I implore you, give it a chance in cooking. Especially wine. 

As with all fermented foods (because that is what alcohol in all it's forms is - a fermented plant of one variety or another) alcohol adds umami flavor to whatever you add it to. This is precisely the reason you can make a pan sauce out of nothing more than fond, a few splashes of wine, a touch of fat, and a fresh herb or two. Try to do the same thing using water and you will be sorely disappointed. 

I add wine to all of my homemade stocks (typically a dry white) and many of my homemade soups (red or white, depending). It doesn't take much, as little as a 1/4 of a cup will often do the trick but the difference in flavor is phenomenal. And it doesn't have to be expensive, in fact it should not be. You should use a wine that is drinkable (avoid "cooking wine" at all costs) but you can find respectable, drinkable wines for around $5 a bottle (shhh, don't tell the wine snob police). 

For very general guidelines, when cooking with wine you should stick to the drier (i.e. not sweet) wines for most applications. I like un-oaked Chardonnay for all-purpose white and Merlot is a safe middle of the road red, although not my favorite. If you don't drink a lot of wine you have a couple of options for buying and storing. You can buy a regular bottle and freeze what you don't use in a week or so in ice cube trays. This is convenient as most ice cubes are about 2 tablespoons so later measuring is easy and for cooking purposes freezing won't significantly diminish the quality of the wine. Or you can look for a good boxed wine (gasp!). No, I am not talking about those huge $5 boxes of pink wine that you get at the grocery store. Inside the boxes the wine is actually in what is referred to as a "bladder", essentially a thick bag. As bad a rap as boxed wine has, keeping wine in these bladders has some distinct advantages and are slowly gaining grudging respect. Basically the bladder has a one way valve that allows wine to exit but prevents air from entering. This means that you can keep an open box in your refrigerator for up to six weeks with no significant  loss in quality. And that is a big advantage if you don't drink much wine and so don't have half empty bottles around on a regular basis. To find a decent boxed wine (because there is *a lot* of bad boxed wine out there) I recommend you go to a store like BevMo and ask an associate for some guidance. If you have a Trader Joe's in your area they have an excellent selection of affordable wines and are happy to help you pick something out (although I don't think they have any boxed wines). 

But wine is not the only alcohol you can use in cooking. In my last post I mentioned in passing that I used homemade pepper vodka in my savory pie crust. It is really easy to make your own flavored alcohols, especially vodka, since it is basically a blank slate. Why pay all that extra for the flavored liquors if you can make them yourself for a lot less and they will likely taste a whole lot better? If you see yourself really getting into this you can pick up a handle of Smirnoff or Kirkland Signature at Costco for a song. I'll be trying more varieties in the upcoming months and sharing the results with you here. The pepper vodka is a super easy place to start. 

You need: 
- a smallish glass jar of some sort with a top/lid
- a decent but not top shelf vodka (maybe a cup? I didn't measure)
- about 30 whole peppercorns

Scald your jar by pouring boiling water into it, let it sit a moment, and then pour out and allow to cool until you can handle it. Add your vodka and peppercorns. Secure lid. Set aside in a dark place for a couple of weeks. Use. 

See how easy that is?! You can strain it if you like, but for this flavor it is not essential. As you can see from the photo at the beginning of this post it gently shades the vodka, which is colorless to begin with. 

So get cooking with alcohol. It is not scary and it will add a whole new dimension to your food. Just remember to remove it from the heat before adding the alcohol if you are concerned about the liquor igniting - flambe is fun, but not always desirable.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the tips! I don't cook with alcohol often enough, I am aware of that now. As for these bladder boxes, I know people who know quite a bit about wine and they swear by these boxes too.

Unknown said...

i luv adding wine to sauces. it's great! thanks for the informational post. and i love that bottle you have your pepper vodka in.


Too bad my husband is allergic to alcohol. He passes out even with the smallest hint of alcohol. Or else I would love to use it cooking.

Bethany said...

I love red wine in spaghetti sauce, but I don't care for it in stew. pepper vodka sounds interesting.