Rather than just getting your food tipsy, think of alcohol as a flavor enhancer, similar to the role salt plays in a recipe. Part of this has to do with the way alcohol bridges the gap between fat- and water-soluble molecules, which in turn determines the flavor of food.
When you experience a dish, “there is what you taste on your tongue — water-soluble flavors — and there are the aromas that are in your nose. Those aromas are oil-soluble or fat-soluble flavors,” says food writer Andrew Schloss. These two things make up our perception of flavor. “Tastes and aroma equal flavor,” he says.
Schloss and David Joachim wrote about the role of alcohol in cooking in “Fine Cooking” several years ago, exploring in part alcohol’s unique ability to bond with both water- and fat-soluble molecules, dramatically expanding the flavor we sense in a dish. “Alcohol latches onto flavor molecules in a way that nothing else does,” Schloss said in a recent phone conversation.
The pair note that water-soluble flavors include what we perceive of as bitter, salty, sweet and sour. Oil-soluble flavors come from flavor compounds in herbs, seasonings and aromatics. In a sense, alcohol’s role in enhancing flavor is like listening to music in stereo as opposed to mono, allowing us to sense and appreciate flavor at a much greater range.
A great example of this is with a brine or marinade. Add a touch of alcohol, and you’ll probably notice that it really improves the flavor and boosts the aroma of the ingredients. I’ve noticed this especially when brining poultry. I used to add aromatics — rosemary and toasted mustard seeds — to my brines to sometimes muted effect. But adding a dose of bourbon adds its own complementary notes, while boosting the flavor and aroma in the finished birds.
I’ve had the same results with curing, which happens when a piece of meat or fish is coated with salt and sugar until the proteins are denatured. Add some cracked pepper and fresh herbs, and you’ll notice some flavor transfer. But add liquor — aquavit is classic with salmon, but I prefer gin — and the flavors appear much more pronounced.
And these are just a couple of examples. The same results can be found throughout a wide range of cooking methods, from deglazing a pan after roasting to layering flavors in a sauce or stew. Not to mention baking. Not only does alcohol help inhibit gluten formation to prevent a tough crust, but it also boosts the notes of other ingredients in the dough, including butter and spices or herbs added to flavor the crust. The same goes for brushing or saturating a cake with liqueur.
Another way alcohol improves a dish is through evaporation. Because of the volatility of alcohol molecules, they evaporate quickly. When you add alcohol to a dish, that evaporation transfers the aroma the alcohol draws from other ingredients. This is particularly noticeable when macerating fresh fruit. The same occurs when infusing ingredients — such as fresh fruit or herbs — in alcohol.
“I’ve infused fresh strawberries in vodka, and a year later it still smells exactly like fresh strawberries,” said Schloss. “That’s why alcohol’s used in perfume. Once it latches on, it doesn’t let go.”
One thing to keep in mind, particularly if you’re cooking for kids or folks who don’t drink: The retention of alcohol depends mostly on time and exposure to air. “You would think the flames would immediately burn off the alcohol in flambé. That’s what we see,” said Joachim. (Dramatic and entertaining it might be, flambéing burns off only about 25 percent of the alcohol, according to the USDA.)
One other thing to keep in mind when playing with alcohol — particularly distilled alcohol — is to play in moderation. You don’t want to get your food drunk. When poaching fruit, particularly if I’m using a distilled liquor such as brandy, I dilute the liquor with water. This minimizes the harshness of the alcohol while allowing the delicate spices — I like cinnamon and cloves when poaching pears — to come through.
Just as when you season with salt, go light at first with the alcohol. A little goes a long way. You can always add more, but you can’t take it away. Too much alcohol will ruin a dish, just as it can that one friend who doesn’t know their limit.
But unlike wine or beer, an opened bottle of liquor will usually last a long time. And it’s good to have at least one handy when the need arises — either for cocktails or cooking.
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