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How To Cook With Alcohol

Updated on March 20, 2011

Cooking with alcoholic beverages is de rigeur in classical cuisine. It's often been referred to as the backbone of cooking. Indeed, cooking with alcohol, from the conventional beer and wine, to the more unconventional vodka and sake, is probably more prevalent in restaurants that many may think.

In many Michelin starred restaurants an inordinate number of the dishes typically prepared contain alcohol. The words sherry, wine, vermouth, Madeira and Champagne vinaigrette are found throughout the menu. Alcohol finds its way into the most unexpected dishes. A famous northern Italian specialty is penne pasta served in a vodka sauce that will knock you on your behind. Desserts are no exception, with port included in the chocolate crepe recipe, vodka in the ice cream accompanying the apple tarts and mirin in the passion fruit sauce for the chiffon cake.

Reducing is a popular process at many fine restaurants. A reduction is a liquid mixture, in this case, one made with alcohol, that has been boiled and, by evaporation, decreases in volume. The goal is to thicken the liquid while deepening the flavor. Don't believe for a moment that all the alcohol evaporates and can the result can be fed to kids. It doesn't and it can't!

Before you begin preparing your own reduction, you'll of course need to get some wine. Don't go cheap. If you buy a decent bottle of wine to cook with, you can always drink the remainder.

If you're cooking fish or poultry, opt for white wine... but there are always exceptions, of course, such as salmon or duck. Any hearty, meaty fish is fine with a red wine sauce but something light like halibut should probably be prepared with white wine. Red wines are generally good with meats.

Red wine reduction.
Red wine reduction.

Although traditional cooking methods call for reducing a white wine all the way down or until it's almost dry then building up the sauce with butter, great chefs have a different set of instructions for their cooks. You should always take the time to taste the sauce while it's reducing. With most sweet and white wines, you can reduce until the harshness is gone, but still have the flavor of the alcohol. You'll usually reach this point when the sauce is halfway reduced.

By adding the butter halfway through the process, you'll have a lighter sauce that retains the flavor of both the wine and butter. You'll also avoid the acidic taste that may result from completely reducing the wine. A reduction should be mellow, not scorched and bitter.

If you're watching your waistline you can easily cut back on the butter and fats in sauces. Rather than adding butter, oil or cheese to a reduction sauce, combine it with a puree of vegetables. If you're serving fattier dishes, a lighter sauce is a good idea and will likely be appreciated by most of your guests. With lighter foods, you can get away with heavier sauces. This is why fish, especially light ones like halibut, are often served with a buttery or creamy sauce.

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