Ask Peter: Replacing alcohol in cooking
I am after advice about what to add to recipes instead of alcohol. I have a problem in that alcohol has a very metallic taste to me, a result of a medical procedure that I had in my 20s.
I can taste it in any food that it has been added to no matter how small the amount. I know that cooking takes out the alcohol but I can still taste it and it’s the actual taste that is the problem. Do I just add the same quantity of water every time or do you have another suggestion that I can use? Jenny
It’s a good question, because I often feel that alcohol is added to a dish without actually giving any added flavour — which surely is the point of an ingredient.
Of course, some things are added for texture rather than flavour: water chestnuts in a spring roll, or Vietnamese rice noodles in a chicken salad, for example — although both do also have a subtle flavour, of course. When I read a recipe that calls for a few tablespoons of white wine to be added to a stock or risotto, I do wonder.
Sure, if you’re roasting a chicken or pan-frying fish in butter and you add half a cup of an aromatic wine like riesling or pinot gris to deglaze the pan, I’d say you will notice the flavour, if the wine itself has flavour.
Likewise, marinating diced beef and vegetables in half a bottle of grunty red wine will add a meaningful addition to a beef bourguignon or similar — but I would query whether adding 2 Tbsp sauvignon blanc to a risotto will have any impact at all. The wine will be overpowered by the other ingredients and you’ll wonder why you didn’t just drink it instead.
Likewise, burning off the alcohol from brandy that you’ve added to a pan of sauteed chicken livers and caramelised onions before you puree them into a paté, will definitely be noticeable, while adding a slosh of pastis or ouzo to a pan of sizzling scallops or mussels will give a most delicious, aniseed character.
You likely wouldn’t add red wine to either shellfish because the flavour wouldn’t quite gel and the colour may not be what you want, but adding a subtle white wine and you might as well simply add a light fish or vegetable stock instead — even one that is made with no alcohol.
So, assuming the recipe calls for alcohol, first consider if the alcohol they recommend will actually add anything of a flavoursome value, and then figure out what alternatives there might be.
In some cases it could just be water if it’s moisture the dish needs, but other times it might be a simple vegetable, fish, chicken or meat stock — all of which can be made successfully without alcohol. Other examples might be:
A chocolate mousse that asks for Grand Marnier or Cointreau. The latter two liqueurs are bitter orange-based, and you can get the same effect by using orange juice reduced over medium heat with a teaspoon of marmalade until slightly thickened. Strain it before adding to the mixture.
With a duck or chicken liver paté that requires brandy, I’d suggest you use equal quantities of apple juice and orange juice. But use double the volume in order to notice their effect. You can either reduce the juices in a small pan before adding them or simply cook them for longer in the pan to reduce the volume — you don’t want a wet paté.
Risotto is an interesting one as many recipes tell you to add a glass of wine to the pot once the onions have been sauteed and the rice added. You then cook, stirring the rice, until the wine has evaporated and been absorbed, then you start to add stock gradually and cook that out.
I’d stick out my neck and say that unless you’re going to add a decent amount of wine during the cooking process (I once had a delicious scallop and Prosecco risotto) you can skip that first glass. Sure, if your risotto asks for a glass of red wine to be added to say a duck liver, cuttlefish or fennel sausage risotto, then the wine is needed to add flavour, but it will also add a welcome colour and some pleasant tannin.
You should also check out whether the vinegars you use contain alcohol — by the time you get to enjoy the vinegar they will likely contain none at all, but some have been made from fermented wines which of course originally contained alcohol. And it’s also worth shopping at halal stores where, of course, you will find not even a trace of alcohol in any of their relishes, sauces or other foods.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.