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Cooking with alcohol

75376542 11Using alcohol in your cooking can add a depth of flavour, and turn an everyday meal into something special!

Many more meals and desserts use alcohol than you might first imagine, ranging from the classic Beef Bourguignon to tasty whiskey-based cakes and flambéed Crêpes Suzette with lashings of brandy. The key to cooking with alcohol is, if it doesn’t taste great, don’t use it. The flavour could ruin your meal, but choose a good quality product and it will really enhance the flavour and take your dish to a higher level. So whether it’s cider,  beer or wine you plan to use, a little investigation goes a long way.

Cider rules
Maybe not the first alcoholic beverage you think of when it comes to cooking, but cider goes particularly well with pork, fish, poultry and some fruits. Cheap, commercial ‘white’ ciders are not suitable for cooking according to BBC Good Food website, ‘Single varietal ciders have their own distinctive flavours – try a few to find your favourite. In general, it’s best to choose a medium-strength cider (around 6-7%) for cooking as very alcoholic ciders can overpower your dish.’ Do your research to avoid any disasters.

Cooking tip: Use cider to braise meat, in sauces and gravy or for pickling fruit. Apple cider vinegar, which is said to have health-giving properties, can also be used to make a variety of salad dressings if you enjoy strong flavours.

Wine dining
Once again, quality is key when it comes to cooking with wine. ‘It (quality) does show,’ says Blueprint Café’s head chef Jeremy Lee. ‘Even in a casserole that’s slow-cooked. If you use the thin, cheap stuff you have to use twice the amount to get any flavour. Of course, there is a cut-off point… and you want to cook with a bottle you can have a glass of, that’s for sure.’ Big flavoured oaky reds tend to obliterate the flavour in the food, so if the wine is going to be cooked only lightly it’s worth taking care. Even if you are just adding it to the gravy,or deglazing the pan, you will be able to taste the wine, so it’s well worth using a good one. As for white wines, Jeremy says he would always choose a wine with good acidity and sprightly character. ‘A simple gavi is great.’

After adding wine to sauces and stews, simmer for 10 to 15 minutes to evaporate the alcohol and allow all the flavours time to blend. At the table, serve the same wine you cooked with, as the wine will bring out the flavour of the food.

Cooking tip: When a recipe calls for water, try replacing it with a favourite wine. You can also stir in one to two tablespoons of a full-bodied red into brown gravy for flavour. Let it simmer to create rich brown gravy for red meat.

Use reds for flavouring sauces with red meat. For example, a bold red wine would be perfect for a meatball marina  or stout stews with lots of vegetables. Steer towards white wines if you are making cream sauces or want to emphasise white meats or seafood.

Beer it up
Beer is made from grain, hops, water and yeast, so arguably sits better   with the main foods we all eat than  its cooking rival, wine. Beer batter is probably the most well known beer-based dish, but adding even a small amount of beer can bring flavour and zing to other dishes, too. Virtually any liquid called for in a recipe could potentially be replaced with beer, so start experimenting.

Cooking tip: Add a dash of beer to stews and casseroles just before serving, to reinforce their flavour. Beer goes particularly well with beef and ham or bacon. Don’t throw leftover beer away – instead, why not try adding it to batter, stocks, soups and gravies for a different, bolder flavour sensation.

The top five classic alcohol-based dishes

  1. Beef Bourguignon: This French classic is making a well-deserved comeback. Think braising steak, with pancetta or bacon, fresh vegetables and the key ingredient, red wine – or for a quirky twist, cider.  
  2. Tiramisu: Italian and oozing with richness, this luxury dessert uses mascarpone, eggs, coffee and sponge but what takes this to a heavenly new level is the liberal addition of sweet Marsala wine, rum or cognac.
  3. Coq au vin: Hailing from France again (who says the French like booze?), this dish’s main ingredient is chicken, with vegetables, bacon, red wine and a glug of brandy for good measure, making this a tipsy favourite.
  4. Brandy butter: Christmas wouldn’t be the same without brandy butter and this easy-to-make accompaniment to Christmas pudding takes minutes. With butter the main ingredient, the only others are icing sugar, zest if you want a citrus tang and, of course, a good brandy – how much you add depends on how festive you’re feeling.
  5. Steak and ale pie: Who doesn’t love a hot pie? This winter warmer is made from braising steak, winter veg and herbs. Mixed into the sauce is beer or some prefer Guinness. Topped with a pastry crust, this is a boozy winner.

93188151 7Mussels in cider, garlic, chilli and cream
Choose your mussels with care. They should be shiny, unbroken and, most importantly, alive.

Serves 4

You will need:

  • 2kg mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 fresh chilli, chopped (optional)
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 300ml double cream
  • 300ml Westons Stowford Press Medium Dry Cider
  1. Scrub and de-beard the mussels, then dry off any excess water with a clean tea towel.
  2. Heat a heavy pan on a high heat and, when hot, add the garlic, shallots, mussels, cream and cider.
  3. Cover with a tight lid and cook for 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally for an evenly cooked mix.
  4. Drain the mussels into a colander, reserving the hot liquid in a bowl. Remove and discard any unopened mussels and keep the remainder warm.
  5. Return the liquid to the pan, turn the heat up high and continue to cook until it has reduced by half.
  6. Add chilli and seasoning to taste. Divide mussels into 4 bowls, pour the hot liquid over and serve immediately with good quality, fresh bread.

Recipe from Westons English Cider,

This article was first published in at home with Marco Pierre White in October 2011. [Read the digital edition here]

 Image: Getty

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