If the closest you’ve ever been to using alcohol as an ingredient is a splash of red in your bolognese or a haphazard festive flambé, you’ve been missing a trick. Incorporating booze into your recipe can take the flavour potential of your dish to dizzying new heights. We asked the experts for tips on cooking with rum, whisky, mezcal, gin, vodka and more…
From savoury dishes – in marinades, brines, sauces, glazes – to desserts, like ice cream or sorbet, cooking with alcohol can add body and depth to your food, says Carlo Scotto, chef and owner of Xier | XR in London. “It can really bring out the best of the ingredients you are cooking with,” he says. “Just like how you know to pair a quality piece of steak with a full-bodied red wine, there’s an abundance of food-alcohol pairings that will take your cooking to the next level.”
Let’s take a peek at the science behind it. Our perception of flavour is linked to the aromas in the nose – more so than the mouth – and how quickly molecules dissolve, says Neuza Leal, head chef at Bar Douro in London. “Because alcohol molecules evaporate really quickly, you can straight away feel the aromas carried by the beverage, and this heightens the flavour,” she says.
“Alcohol also bonds with fat and water molecules,” explains Chris Riley, recipe developer, culinary expert and founder of The Daring Kitchen. “This helps to close the gap between smell receptors, which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat and food that consists primarily of water.” This means the alcohol will enhance the flavours found in the other ingredients, too.
Generally speaking, “fruit or coffee liqueurs, brandy and Cognac suit desserts better as they are quite sweet and thick,” says Leal. “Because their sugar content is higher, they caramelise better, which gives a stronger flavour. Where savoury dishes are concerned, spirits like vodka, Tequila, gin and whisky can add a kick, acidity, spice or smoky notes.”
You also need to consider the ABV. “Depending on the strength of the alcohol you are using, it will affect the structure of the food you are preparing,” says Jorge Colazo, head chef at Aquavit London. For example, vodka’s high alcohol content, he says, will affect the structure of ice cream, which freezes at a much lower temperature.
“If you’re unsure about which alcohol to use when cooking, think about what alcohol you’d like to drink while eating that dish – that’s usually a good place to start,” Colazo continues. “Also, remember that the alcohol will change the flavour during the cooking or marinating process, so it is a case of some trial and error.”
1) Start small
“The best way to get started is really just to experiment, add a little bit of alcohol to dishes you’re making here and there and just taste it, make adjustments accordingly, and see what you like,” says Scotto.
2) Think simple
“Always think as simply as possible when cooking with alcohol,” says Ioannis Grammenos, executive chef of Heliot Steak House in London. “Only use as much as your recipe requires – more alcohol doesn’t always mean more flavour. Make sure the alcohol evaporates fully.”
3) Measure it out
“Avoid adding the alcohol straight from the bottle,” says Riley. “This way is inaccurate and can lead to the alcohol igniting. Use a measuring cup so you add just the right amount and avoid accidents. When you are adding the alcohol, pull the pan off the flame to prevent flare-ups.”
4) Colour match
As a rule of thumb, “darker spirits work with darker meats, sauces and dishes that are heavy on proteins,” says Peter Joseph, chef at Kahani in London. “On the other hand, lighter-coloured spirits belong with lighter and white meats, sauces and low-protein food.”
5) Don’t use top or bottom-shelf boozes
“While the alcohol will burn off during cooking, some flavour will remain,” says Helen Graves, editor of Pit Magazine. “That said, don’t expect many nuances, so aim to use something which has a stronger base flavour that you enjoy and want to include in a marinade, for example, rather than the really good stuff.”
“There are three main ways to infuse your food with whisky: infusing a sauce as an accompanying side, basting your dish throughout cooking or simply having the whisky on the side, using it neat almost as a dressing,” says Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for Glenglassaugh, BenRiach and The GlenDronach distilleries.
“Each way will offer a different level of intensity of the whisky flavours coming through,” he explains. From here, you can choose your preferred style of whisky to either complement or contrast with the other ingredients. “Rich sauces are normally complimentary, whereas dressings and jus are more commonly contrasting,” Buchanan adds.
And don’t be shy about thinking outside the box. Whiskey is great for marinating chicken wings with, says Quinzil de Plessis, master of wood and liquid innovation at Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey, or even for glazing salmon. Be bold!
Mezcal’s characteristically smoky notes can bring a really unique dynamic to your favourite dishes. The spirit “pairs beautifully with grilled foods and it is versatile enough to enhance a marinade for steak, chicken or seafood,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto Mezcal.
“We love to use mezcal in sauces, salsas, marinades and as a quick cure for salmon, as the smokiness in the mezcal works well with the salmon, without the need to smoke it,” he continues. And it would be remiss to mention mezcal’s cooking potential without referencing ceviche. “It works so well with citrus and the saltiness of fresh seafood,” Shepherd says. “Alternatively, mezcal can give the tomato base of a prawn cocktail a nice boost.”
Given vodka’s relatively neutral profile, you might not think it could bring much to a dish – but it makes for an excellent carrier of flavour.
“We use vodka as a marinade for things like Gravadlax – usually caraway or dill infused,” says Jan Woroniecki, owner of Ognisko and Baltic restaurants in London, and founder of Kavka vodka. “It’s a simple dish but gives great results. A small amount of flavoured vodka added to the dry cure helps the marinating process while giving an extra flavour profile.”
Vodka is also ideal for use in desserts, too. “We use our home-made fruit flavoured vodkas and the infused fruit in desserts – the sour cherries after marinating are especially good,” says Woroniecki. “The fruit flavour is still very strong but you get a nice alcohol hit as well.”
Often bold, sometimes spiced, and usually featuring caramel notes – either from the cask or added in – make rum the perfect candidate for cooking, be it in marinades, stews, baked dishes or desserts.
“I like to add Bacardi Spiced to a reduced glaze, which you can use to brush on meat or fish as it cooks, and helps to add a burst of flavour all the while enhancing existing taste and aromas of the food,” says Metinee Kongsrivilai, brand ambassador for Bacardi UK.
Gin might not be the first spirit that springs to mind in cooking, but the wide range of botanical ingredients make the spirit super versatile. “Look out for savoury gins featuring flavours such as rosemary, basil, thyme or sage – it can really work wonders in cooking, but you only need a minimal amount,” says Scotto.
Gin works especially well with seafood, particularly grilled fish, suggests Joe McCanta, global head of education and mixology at Bacardi. “The botanical flavours add another level of spice,” he says.
You can make some nice marinades with gin, adds Jamie Baggott, master distiller at The British Honey Co. “A favourite is gin, ginger, lime and chilli on prawns or squid,” he says, “you can get a bit of flambé from the left over marinade!”
Vermouths, wines etc
An easy way to start cooking with booze is by using wine to deglaze a pan after cooking meat or fish while you sear it in a pan, or added to a sauce to enhance its flavours, says Colazo. “I’d say always use your leftover wine to make a reduction for future sauces or marinades – it’s a very simple way to add alcohol to your cooking.”
Don’t shy away from the fortified stuff. “I probably use sherry and Marsala more than anything in my cooking,” adds Paul Human, founder and head chef of We Serve Humans and boozy burger bar The Collab in Walthamstow. “It’s so versatile and just adds that elusive depth, it also cooks out a lot more easily than hard liquor.”
And you’re eyeing up the vermouth cabinet, “look for a spirit that is aromatic and can add extra flavour to your food,” says Grammenos – for example, you could use Martini to marinate your vegetables before you grill them. “The key is to complement rather than overpower,” he says. Finally be aware of how much sugar is in your vermouth or fortified wine. If it’s at the sweeter end, like a Marsala Dolce, then you only want to use a little in savoury dishes. Even a dry vermouth like Noilly Prat contains about 20g of sugar per litre.
Beer is very versatile, and can be used to marinate or cook meat. “It can also be used in preparing batters and gives a lovely flavour,” says Joseph. “A lot of the time you’ll see a recipe call for water or stock – this is a good opportunity to replace the liquid with a nice craft beer.”
With that said, try to avoid overly hoppy beer. “A lot of craft beer these days is so hoppy it can actually end up being quite bitter in a sauce or marinade,” says Human. “I tend to use lager like Moretti when I’m making jerk sauce, for example.”