How many of you have read of or heard the chef cry out in cookery courses or on TV programmes: “Leave the pan on the heat a bit longer to let the wine evaporate!”? Or: “Can’t you perceive the raw wine taste in this dish?”. Consequently, we have formed the idea that, once it is in the pan cooking with the ingredient of the day, wine is a substance that practically disappears, leaving nothing but a few select aromas. But does alcohol really cook out of food? We would certainly never dream, however, that one of these is alcohol since most people are convinced that it evaporates altogether. You will surely recall having seen the cookery course teacher increasing the heat for a few seconds to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Well, the next time that happens, start to tell him/her to leave the heat as it is for at least a couple of hours. And then of course go on to explain why.
The idea that alcohol cook out of food and evaporates in cooking is to all effects and purposes nothing but a myth. Or, at least, it does not evaporate as quickly as we may have been led to believe. In 1992, some researchers of the US Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory conducted an in-depth study into this topic entitled Alcohol retention in food preparation. They came up with some surprising results.
Take, for instance, the alcohol-based dish that everyone is familiar with: flambé. Does alcohol cook out while practising this technique? It is hard to believe but, once cooked, about 70-75% of its alcohol content remains in the plate! It is a different matter when alcohol is mixed with an ingredient and then heated to boiling point. After 15 minutes, 40% of the alcohol remains, after 30 minutes 35% and only after two and a half hours 5%. This is why it takes about three hours to eliminate all traces of alcohol. For most of us, it does not make a great deal of difference if there is 10% or 0% alcohol in our plate but it is more serious if the food is destined for children, people who are trying to detox from alcohol or those who, for ethical, religious or health-related reasons, have to stay away from any alcoholic substance. The fact remains that alcohol adds a particular and pleasing aroma to many dishes and it would be a shame not to use it. How can the problem be solved? By cooking our food longer, as we have seen above, even though this is not always possible. After all, we can hardly lengthen the preparation time of a flambé to three hours! Alternatively, the aroma of alcohol, or rather liquor, can be obtained using various other ingredients, each one of which provides a different aromatic note.
Do you wish to add the flavour of amaretto to your sweet or savoury dishes? Instead of the well-known liqueur use half a spoonful of almond extract! If you want aniseed instead, there is no need to use the alcoholic beverage: a few drops of fennel extract will do the trick. Similarly, a brandy flavour can be obtained by mixing water, white grape juice, apple juice and peach juice in equal parts. Try it for yourselves. As you can imagine a Cointreau flavour can be “simulated” with squeezed orange juice, better still if frozen and used as an ice-cube. Any more tricks? Certainly: you can use rice vinegar instead of sake, white grape juice or slightly diluted white wine vinegar instead of dry vermouth. To reproduce the aroma of vodka, go for a drink consisting of apple cider and lime juice in equal parts (but a little will go a long way). Last but not least, the King of bar spirits: whisky. No aroma we know of is able to replace the original, especially a quality label. But do not despair: it is the alcoholic drink that evaporates better than any other when used in cooking. If you just adopt a little, it will evaporate in a few minutes, leaving nothing but its aroma. The exception that confirms the myth.