It seems like every time you turn on a cooking show, the host is making something you would never even think about attempting on an ordinary weeknight. It usually involves an inordinate amount of chopping, grating or whisking. There’s usually a thermometer of some kind Involved. And at some point, a healthy amount of booze is poured into the dish.
While we were watching one of these celebrity chefs emptying half a bottle of wine into a pan recently, my wife turned to me and said
“I hate wine in my food. It just makes it taste boozy.”
“Only if they do it wrong,” I said.
“Nope,” She retorted, “I just don’t like
alcohol in my food.”
“Oh, I thought you liked my chicken
Natali sat up straight and stared at me as though she had just been told that I had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.
“You put wine in the stew?”
“I sure do.”
We eventually worked out our issue that night, but we did discuss the idea of alcohol in food for some time afterwards. There are many practical reasons one might use wine in food, actually. To understand why you might want to up the alcoholic content of your evening entrée, lets look at it from a scientific point of view.
Alcohol is a natural preservative. Back in the day, before everyone had a Frigidaire in their kitchen, baked goods were made and consumed within a day or two of being made, especially delicate baked goods like cakes and pies. For a special occasion like Christmas, when a lot of the food had to be made beforehand, families looked for ways to preserve these sweets so they would last until they were needed.
In the United Kingdom, the tradition of dousing a pudding (or cake) in alcohol was invented to keep the sweet stuff from drying out or rotting. This became a tradition in the Southern United States, as well, with the traditional spicy bourbon cakes. Now, the flavor has become synonymous with the holidays, but it started out of necessity.
Alcohol burns at a high temperature. Different levels of heat add different types of flavor to a myriad of foods. The idea of searing a piece of beef over high heat to create a crust, then finishing the cooking over low heat to keep the inside from drying out illustrates this. But what if all you need is a mere couple of seconds of ultra-high heat toward the end of the cooking process to add a little extra caramelization to the dish? Add a little alcohol and set it on fire! An alcohol like brandy burns at over 500 degrees Fahrenheit. It can take just a handful of seconds of ultra-hot, high-alcohol flame to turn a couple of slowly simmering bananas and sugar into decadent bananas Foster.
Just as you might match a certain wine with a certain food, so, too, would you use that wine to add a complimentary flavor to your dish. While I do think pouring a bottle of wine into a pot of “stuff” is a technique that is a little overused, there is a culinary component here that is important. It’s the same idea you want to think about when you are pairing a wine to drink with a meal that you are cooking.
Take braised brisket, for example. If you are serving a cut of brisket, which has a good deal of fat to it (and is certainly not a light piece of meat), you would drink a heavy, tannic red wine to match that flavor profile. The same holds true for the kind of wine you would pick to cook it in. The wine will help break down the meat with its natural acidity, making it more tender, but the meat will also absorb the flavor notes of the vino. The end result will not only be tender and juicy, but well balanced as well.
So before you pour that week-old, half-empty bottle down the drain, peruse that cookbook you got as a Christmas present three years ago. You just might surprise yourself with what you concoct!
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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