An important part of cooking with spirits is finding that perfect balance between being able to taste the alcohol without overwhelming the dish.
Most cooks are familiar with adding a splash of wine to a marsala sauce or shrimp scampi, but many steer clear of working with spirits. With a deft hand, liquors and liqueurs can impart significant flavor and depth to dishes, from savory dinners to decadent desserts.
“An important part of cooking with spirits, especially liquor, is finding that perfect balance between being able to taste the alcohol without overwhelming the other flavors present in a dish,” says Alabama-based cook and caterer Becky Johnson.
Johnson recommends using a variety of liqueurs in recipes as a way to amp up flavor without overwhelming the palate. “Liqueurs are a good way to add subtle depth...in something basic like a glaze for a cake, you could replace the simple syrup in a recipe. Make sure to taste as you experiment, as you might need to add a small amount of sugar after the substitution.”
Sweet liqueurs like Bärenjäger are a good option for cooks looking to add unexpected depth while also adding sweetness. Johnson uses the German liqueur in an otherwise traditional southern sweet potato dish, which she serves often during the holidays.
A common misconception in cooking with spirits is that once they have been heated, they no longer contain alcohol. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
A study on alcohol retention in food preparation in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows that it takes around three hours of cooking to remove all traces of alcohol from a dish, and that different cooking methods lead to radically different alcohol evaporation times. The USDA subsequently produced a chart that helps illustrate the time it takes for a spirit to dissipate.
As the research shows, it is inadvisable to let young children eat the flambéed rum dish Cherries Jubilee. But for adults, alcohol acts like salt in terms of adding overall flavor to a dish, as authors David Joachim and Andrew Sloss discuss in Fine Cooking magazine.
“Alcohol bonds with fat and water molecules. In this way, it bridges the gap between our aroma receptors, which respond only to molecules that can be dissolved in fat, and food (which consists primarily of water). This is crucial, because most of the ‘great’ flavor in food comes from aromas in the nose, rather than taste in the mouth.”
Sloss and Joachim go on to explain that alcohol swiftly carries aromas to our olfactory sensors because their molecules are volatile — meaning that they evaporate rapidly.
Beyond the science-based evidence suggesting that cooking with booze improves flavor, incorporating liquor into recipes opens a whole new world of possibilities for kitchen experimentation. “I was inspired to create a whiskey ginger chicken recipe because my boyfriend’s favorite drink is whiskey and ginger,” says New Orleans-based chef Anne Churchill.
Thinking of signature cocktails and their flavor combinations, and extending that into food, is one sure-footed way to begin experimenting with spirits in recipes. Knowing what you like to drink when selecting spirits that will end up in a recipe is also important; if a wine tastes delicious paired with a particular ingredient, it’s likely it would also work well directly added into a variation of the dish.
Quality also matters — high-end spirits, like any high quality ingredient, produce a better end product. (You’ve probably heard the truism: don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink).
Bärenjäger Candied Sweet Potatoes
Recipe courtesy of Becky Johnson, as seen in Cooking From the Cove Cookbook
- 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into medium matchsticks
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp Bärenjäger honey liqueur
- 2 tbsp light Caro syrup
- 4 tbsp brown sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
Method: Melt butter in medium saucepan and add next 5 ingredients over low heat, stirring to incorporate. Arrange sliced sweet potatoes in a greased baking dish and add melted butter mixture, tossing to mix thoroughly. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for at least thirty minutes, until sweet potatoes are glazed and bubbly.
Whiskey Ginger Chicken with Lime
Recipe courtesy of Anne Churchill
- ¼ c shallots, minced
- ¼ cup whiskey
- ½ cup dry white wine (Sauvignon blanc or Pinot Grigio are both good)
- 1 cup mushroom or chicken stock or water
- 1 Tbsp ginger paste
- 2 tsp garlic paste
- 2 kaffir lime leaves
- 3 Tbsp Meyer lemon juice
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- ½ tsp or more Sambal Olek
- 2 tsp honey
- 1 tsp Creole mustard
- ½ can good quality coconut milk (I use Chaokoh)
Process: Combine all ingredients except coconut cream in a sauce pan and reduce until thickened, 1/2 to 2/3 reduction. Add coconut milk. Reduce until a pleasant thickness is achieved. You can always add water or alcohol to thin out or amp up. Season with salt. Add a splash of lemon juice or whiskey if it lacks umph.
- Preheat oven to 400F. Pat dry skin on chicken breasts. Heat a cast iron skillet.
- Add 2 Tbsp refined organic coconut oil
- Generously salt and pepper skin of chicken
- Gently place in super hot skillet. Season underside lightly with salt
When skin is crispy and brown, flip chicken over. Allow to sauté for a minute, then place uncovered in oven. The time depends on the size of the breasts. Cook until a probe thermometer reads 160-165. Chicken needs to reach 165. It will continue to cook once removed from oven. Allow chicken to rest for several minutes to retain juiciness.
To Serve: Place a pool of sauce in the bottom of a warmed plate. Slice chicken and fan in a circle around inside the circle of sauce. Grate kaffir lime or regular lime zest on top with a micro plane.
Steak with Port Pomegranate Sauce
Recipe courtesy of Anne Churchill
- 1 Tbsp dried achiote
- 1 Tbsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp white peppercorns
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground mustard
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp sumac
- ½ tsp dried pequin peppers (or other medium hot dried pepper-add more to taste) Aleppo is nice also
- 1 tsp granulated garlic
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
Preparation: Combine whole spices in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind. Be forewarned, this will stain your mortar and pestle. Keep in a sealed container. I make a large batch and keep it around for any red meat. Getting small amounts of spices from the bulk aisle will keep this from getting too pricey. Some items can be found at a Middle Eastern Market.
- 2 Tbsp shallot, minced
- 1 tsp garlic, minced
- ¼ tsp allspice
- ½ c port
- 1 cup pomegranate juice
- 1 tsp Creole mustard
- 1Tbsp honey
- 4 Tbsp butter, cut into pieces
- ¼ tsp salt or more to taste
- Olive oil and butter for cooking steaks
Preparation: Put at all ingredients, except butter in a saucepan and reduce 2/3 to 3/4 until it starts to have body. Off heat, slowly whisk in butter to create an emulsion. Keep warm until steaks are ready. If the sauce gets too hot, it will break, meaning the butter will separate. Warm is the operative word. Adjust seasoning as necessary. Pomegranates vary in tartness.
Generously coat the outside of your steak(s) with spice rub and coarse Kosher salt. Heat a cast iron skillet with 2 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Add steak(s). If making multiple, allow the pan to heat back up between adding steaks to the pan. You want a sear and a crust to form on the outside. After a really brown crust has formed, flip the steak.
Nervous? Go for a skirt, hanger steak, or Teres Major. They cook really fast, and are easier to get a desired temp from. Or, you can use a meat thermometer. Remove from heat between 125 and 130F. It will continue to cook after you take it off heat about 5 more degrees. Make sure you let steak rest at least 5 minutes before slicing it to give the juices a chance to redistribute in the meat.
Slice, fan out slices, spoon sauce along the top, garnish with finishing salt if desired. Or you can serve steaks with the sauce on the side as a gravy.