UP until 1983 I had a problem with alcohol. I thought it was only for drinking.
Then I got professional help. I went off to school to train as a chef.
The next few months went by in a high-octane haze as my class learned to rum-flambe just about anything that would fit into a saute pan. We also cured salmon with gin, flavored duck with Armagnac, finished bisques with Pernod and made mayonnaise with Calvados. In baking, we sweetened pecan pies with Bourbon, moistened genoise with kirsch and melted pounds of chocolate with Cointreau.
It may be an overstatement to say things always went better with Cognac, but I did learn there’s a reason restaurant sauces taste headier than what most people make at home: Chefs go straight to the hard stuff. And it’s a lesson that comes in very handy this time of year.
Not only are the holidays the traditional excuse to pour with abandon, in that vain effort to juice up fruitcake and plump up plum pudding. But this is also the season to be excessive, which means the bottles do add up. You overbuy tequila for parties, guests bring good Scotch, and to find room for new grappa you have to cull the old from the liquor cabinet. What better way to get rid of the last half-cup than in a sauce?
The holiday glut is just a great excuse to experiment, and it’s hard to go wrong with any alcohol in the kitchen. As chefs know, liquor is a logical alternative not just to wine but also to spices and sauces as a sophisticated flavoring. All the “normal” liquor typically used for cooking -- dark brews like rum and Bourbon and brandy -- is suited to countless dishes. But even some of the less promising occupants of the top shelf, particularly Scotch and gin, can actually transform some old standards, whether beef stew or braised cabbage.
If you like the taste of a particular liquor, the best part of cooking with it is that you get all the flavor and virtually none of the proof when you add it to a sauce, or a pie or tart. The heat burns off almost all of the actual alcohol, leaving only the essence behind.
Subtle, not socko
When you blend it with complementary flavors, liquor also has the same effect it does in a well-made cocktail. You know it’s there, but it doesn’t sock you in the palate. Half a cup of Bourbon in a glaze for pecans spiced with cumin and cayenne, for instance, comes through as a subtle, slightly sweet undertone that makes the nuts mysterious but still irresistible.
Some liquor has a taste you can almost visualize, which can inspire other pairings. Scotch to me is smoky and dark, and it brings out those same traits in wild mushrooms and wild rice. It can be used just to deglaze the pan that morels have been seared in, or it can be taken to another level by adding it in the last minutes while a wild rice-and-mushroom soup is simmering. The effect is haunting but still perceptible.
Gin is like a juniper tree in a bottle, which makes it a natural partner for red cabbage, or duck and game, or ingredients that need an almost piney accent. If you use gin and juniper berries together, you take the taste to a higher plane.
Bourbon is just a few shades light of molasses and plays well with pumpkin, in a liberally spiced torte or in a pie. Unlike Scotch, it can go sweet or savory and is as suited to a sauce for pork as it is for blending with crushed vanilla wafers to make Bourbon balls that only get stronger as they age.
And Pernod and ouzo, in all their licorice pungency, bring out an oceanic intensity in seafood like scallops and lobster.
Think spices too
Most liquors have natural partners in the spice rack as well. Bourbon likes nutmeg, cinnamon or mace; rum hits high notes with thyme and allspice or cloves, and tequila has a heat that is only amplified by dried chilies or fresh jalapenos.
Some of the wet-and-dry combinations I learned in school are still favorites: Cognac and whole-grain mustard for sauteed chicken or veal; green peppercorns with any brandy for beef filets; shallots and Cointreau for pork.
Any of the “fruity” liquors and liqueurs also are naturals for sweetening whipped cream, of course, but can also be folded into mascarpone to make a thicker, richer filling for a cake or topping for warm scones. Pastry cream, which was such a mainstay in cooking school, soaks up any alcohol and wafts it back into whatever it accompanies. Even a teetotaler’s cake would benefit from close association. And then there is dark chocolate, which has never met a liquor it didn’t melt right into, from Bourbon and rum to Chambord and Grand Marnier.
About the only alcohol that seems wasted on the stove is vodka. It may have had a heyday in pasta sauce, but it really is like the ghost in the cuisine. To me, there’s no there there. Unless, of course, it’s flavored. And then what you taste is not vodka but harsh lemon or raspberry or orange.
But a cook should think like a careful martini maker and choose the best liquor possible. Cooking is not like mixing a rum and Coke, when you can count on the stronger, sweeter component to hide the roughness of the liquor. The levels of flavor start with the alcohol, and what is known as sipping alcohol is the best. Old Grand-Dad might be fine for a mint julep, for instance, but something like Maker’s Mark or Woodford Reserve is more nuanced for cooking.
If that seems extravagant, just remember that less is more with alcohol. Just a few tablespoons can flavor a whole pie, or a side dish for six, or a sauce for a whole turkey. You might need a cupful for a dry old fruitcake, but waving the bottle over a tart is almost enough.