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Getting Clear on Cooking With Booze

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Whether you’re a professional chef or a home cook, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to try out some new skills and some new recipes. You don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, but why not try something you’ve never done before, like cook with alcohol? 

Not only does brandy, wine and rum add serious flavor to dishes – you don’t have to be Julia Child to master this technique. 

Just ask Jack Bishop, the editorial director at America’s Test Kitchen. “It’s actually not that complicated,” he told FoxNews.com. “There are three types of recipes that most people think about. One is long-cooked stews where you are often using quite a bit of alcohol – usually red wine. Two, quick-pan sauces, where you sauté chops and steaks and you’re adding red wine, and then there’s flambéing.” 

We’ll save flambéing until later. 

For now, let’s start with some basic guidelines: 

1. Don’t cook with something you wouldn’t want to drink. “Anything labeled ‘cooking wine’ in the supermarket has salt added to it to make it shelf stable and it will probably ruin your dishes,” Bishop said. “Cook with something you would drink.” 

2. The wine doesn’t have to be super fancy: “On the flip side of that, in the Test Kitchen we’ve done a lot of tests with good $10 to $12 bottles of wine and excellent $30 and $40 bottles of wine and it’s really hard to tell the difference once you cook with it,” he said. “So don’t cook with something extravagant – save that for drinking. It’s about calibrating something that’s not awful, but not spectacular.” 

3. Remember, alcohol content does remain: “In terms of stews, I think people think ‘Oh, it cooks for such a long time that all the alcohol must cook off.’ That’s not really true,” Bishop added. “The amount of alcohol left in most of these recipes is not tremendous, and again, your kid is not going to eat the entire thing, so I think that’s less of a concern. But for somebody who really isn’t drinking any alcohol –there is alcohol left in many of these dishes after cooking.” 

How much alcohol is left behind depends on what you’re cooking and how you’re cooking it. “Anything that’s cooking in a way that maximizes the evaporation of the liquid also maximizes the evaporation of the alcohol,” Bishop said. “So if you’re adding wine to a skillet that you’ve cooked some steaks in, and you’re deglazing it and cooking it down to make a sauce, most of the alcohol is going to cook off. If you’re adding wine to a pot of stew that’s being cooked covered, even though it’s cooking for probably much longer than those sauces, there is probably more alcohol left in that because it simply comes down to evaporation in terms of how much alcohol is left.” 

Let’s take a look at a few examples to put this in perspective. 

Beef Stew: “In our tests we found when we cooked beef stew that 60 percent of the alcohol was cooked off during the two to three hours in the oven in a covered pot. But that means 40 percent of the alcohol is still in there.” Basically, if you add two to three cups of Côtes du Rhone wine to that Daube Provencal (a French beef stew) – there’s still quite a bit of alcohol left behind. 

Open skillet: “In contrast, when we did a 30-minute stovetop braised chicken in an open skillet, after 30 minutes, 90 percent of the alcohol was gone,” Bishop said. “That uncovered cooking versus covered is probably the biggest variable that’s going to affect the amount of alcohol that’s left in the dish.” 

Flambéing: “Even flambéing, you think, ‘Oh if I’m making cherries jubilee or Steak Diane,’ or some other classic French dish that usually has brandy – you know we found depending on different variables it could have 25 to 50 percent of the alcohol still left after its been flambéed,” he said. “I think you have to keep that in mind especially if you’re going to serve the dish to someone who is not consuming alcohol whatsoever.” 

Dousing a dessert with Kahlua or Frangelico: “If you’re don’t heat the dish in some way, you’re going to get almost no evaporation of the alcohol, so take a tiramisu where you’re soaking the lady fingers in a Kahlua mixture, well then there’s Kahlua in the dish,” Bishop added. “We’ve haven’t run these tests, but my guess is from the tests we’ve run, that 80 to 90 percent of the alcohol you added is still there. If you’re not heating it, it’s not going to evaporate very much.” On that note, do not let you 5-year-old eat half of the tiramisu being served after Thanksgiving dinner. 

When choosing a wine: As a well-known expert in the food industry for the past several decades, Bishop gets bombarded with cooking questions all the time. In regards to this subject, people really want to know which wines give off the best flavors. 

“There are certain wines that do perform better. In general, the really oaked wines, whether it’s a chardonnay if we’re talking about white wines or a cabernet sauvignon if we’re talking about red – those are less desirable because those tannins and those oaky notes can be over powering. In general, a moderately fruity wine, like a Côtes du Rhone for red is a good choice. A Sauvignon Blanc for white is very desirable.” Bishop likes cooking with white wine so much that he wouldn’t dare serve his Thanksgiving gravy without it. 

“When I make gravy I add a bit of white wine and cook it down and I think that adds some of the acidity. It brings out the meat flavor and the savory flavors and it balances all of the salty flavors of the gravy. I can’t really imagine making gravy without white wine.” 

When the turkey is done, Bishop takes it out of the pan to let it rest, and in the meantime, he throws some white wine into the roasting pan. After that, he places the pan on the burners (obviously a heat-proof roasting pan) to lift up those drippings. “It gives my gravy one last boost of flavor,” he said. 

If you’re feeling a little more daring, try your hand at flambéing. “If you do have some previous experience, try some showy desserts like crepes Suzette or some other classic Christmas pudding,” Bishop said. “I would probably practice a little bit before you do it front of all of your guests though.” 

Not only does cooking with alcohol add another dimension to food – it’s also pretty impressive. Just make sure you have a fire extinguisher handy if you’re planning to make Bananas Foster for the first time this holiday season. 

After all, you want to keep your eyebrows and your kitchen intact.