One of the simplest, and often quickest, ways to add a serious depth of flavour to your cooking is to add wine, beer, spirits or other alcohols. Wine is one of the “must have” ingredients in my kitchen, used almost as regularly as other seasonings and flavourings such as salt and pepper, butter, oil, herbs, garlic etc. When used correctly, the alcohol itself cooks out so that you can use it even if you are a strict teetotaller, and it is therefore also safe for kids and anyone else on a booze-free regime.
This is not a “cooking with wine” recipe as such, but a general guide to alcohol in the kitchen: adapt and use where you like. I’ve used wine as the example throughout, but most is true about cooking with beer, spirits, fortified wine, cider etc.
Rule One: never cook with wine that is not good enough to drink. There is no such thing as “cooking wine.” Wine is used in cooking to add flavour, so why would you want to add flavours that are crude or second class? This doesn’t mean that you have to use expensive wines, even if your budget can stretch to it. Use good, everyday, drinking wine that you would happily pour into your glass to have with your dinner, or when lying back on the sofa with a good book. Furthermore, the majority of recipes do not call for a whole bottle of wine, so what else are you going to do with the rest of it than drink it? Wine does go off once opened, you know. Waste not, want not.
Rule Two: as I mentioned in the first paragraph, make sure the alcohol has a chance to cook off. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water (78C compared to 100C) so this is easily achieved: a minimum of a few minutes bubbling will do it, and of course in the majority of recipes the cooking time is far in excess of this. Just don’t chuck the booze in just before you serve, and you will be fine.
Rule Three: despite being told the contrary in so many classic recipes and methods, avoid marinating meats in wine or other alcohols (and, for that matter, citrus and vinegars etc) for very long. Yes, the wine will seep into the meat, adding flavour, but the alcohol also wants to bond with the moisture content, and will thus tend to dry it out. Use marinades that are mainly oil-based, and reserve the wine etc for the cooking.
Rule Four: where practical, use wine to deglaze the pan. After frying or roasting meats, fish, vegetables, or pretty much anything, add a glass or so to the hot pan, stirring and swirling up all those tasty sediments at the bottom, and let it reduce a little while the alcohol boils out. Add to your gravy, stew, stock, or just pour these winy pan juices over the finished dish.
Rule Five: substitute. Don’t forget that most wine cookery recipes come from countries and regions where wine is cheap, plentiful and easily available. Even though a decent drinkable wine is available to most budgets pretty much everywhere, why not substitute a form of alcohol that is local to you? I did exactly this recently in my Mussels with Chorizo in Cider recipe, using local cider where wine is a more knee-jerk choice.
A final cautionary note: alcohol can flame when added to a hot pan, so BE CAREFUL. Spirits will obviously do this, sometimes intentionally, as in flambé dishes, but the alcohol in wine too can rapidly vaporise and catch, along with fats released from your food, so do take care!
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