You may be thinking the only reason one needs to cook with alcohol is: Why not? It's tasty and, if you're working with more than the recipe calls for, can make the cooking process that much more enjoyable. But there's more than the mixing of two great things—booze and food—that makes drunken dishes that much better. The scientific properties of alcohol make the final product even greater than the sum of its parts.
1. To Take Advantage of the Volatility Effect
Alcohol molecules are volatile, so they evaporate easily, which facilitates carrying the scent particles in a dish to our noses. Adding some alcohol to things like a fruit salad will increase the fragrance factor, and, since smell is crucial to taste, the existing flavors will be heightened. Just a splash of vodka or other spirits will do the trick—you don't want the dish to smell like alcohol.
2. For Better Beer Batter...
The same protein-rich CO2 foam that creates a creamy head on the beer you drink also allows for a light, crispy crust when you add it to frying batter.
3. ...And Moister Insides
Additionally, the foam serves as an insulator to keep the food inside from overcooking while allowing you to fry up everything from fish to Oreos in high-heat oil.
4. To Keep Homemade Ice Cream Soft
Your homemade ice cream should be frozen, of course, but not frozen solid! Alcohol lowers the freezing point (this is also why you keep liquor in the freezer) so ice creams stay creamier and smoother and are less likely to form ice crystals. Aim for three tablespoons per liter. Vodka works when you don’t want to alter the flavor, but there are plenty of options that do double duty. Amaretto, Grand Marnier, and other flavored liquors not only keep your ice cream scoopable, they also add nuance.
5. As A Meat Tenderizer
Marinate your steak in alcohol. Not only does it impart a rich flavor, the acids and tannins in beer and wine help break down the proteins, making even cheap cuts super tender.
6. For A Flakier Pie Crust
Replacing water with vodka (or some other alcohol) when making a pie crust results in a lighter, flakier finish. Water encourages gluten production, which—although responsible for giving the crust the structural integrity it needs—also makes the finished product dense and heavy, and susceptible to becoming overworked. Alcohol inhibits gluten formation and keeps the crust from getting tough.
7. To Reduce Carcinogens in Grilled Meat
Recently, a report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that marinating meat in dark beer cut the number of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are linked to cancer, in half.
8. Flambé For A Caramelized Sear
There is a simmering debate surrounding this one. Some people claim that adding alcohol to a dish just to set it on fire is purely showmanship, a burst of flames to wow your diners. But there is evidence to suggest that the direct heat quickly sears the food and caramelizes any sugars in the sauce without overcooking anything.
9. For More Effective Deglazing
When you roast or pan fry a piece of meat, some of it gets stuck to the cooking surface. Those browned bits aren't just an unavoidable byproduct, though. They're full of flavors you want to keep in the dish. Deglazing makes a pan sauce out of some liquid and those crispy fat deposits and caramelized sugars. Using wine or spirits as your solvent not only adds a deeper flavor to the sauce, the alcohol also makes for more effective deglazing because ethanol creates chemical bonds with both water and fat molecules.
10. For Extracting Flavors Naturally
This is one step removed from actually cooking, but you can use alcohol to make expensive ingredients for far cheaper. The same chemical property that allows the savory fats in the item above to bond with the wine in deglazing will allow you to extract the flavorful oils from nuts, vanilla beans or citrus. Just mix the highest proof alcohol—vodka if you don't want to alter the flavor—and let the mixture sit for about a week. With slightly different ratios and a sugary syrup, you can make limoncello like this, too.
11. Because it Doesn't All Cook Off, No Matter What They Say
Even though alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, it doesn't all cook off on the stove or in the oven. Of course, if you take just one serving of a booze-laden dish you probably won't feel the effects. But go ahead, have another piece of rum cake—maybe it'll take the edge off your next family gathering.