Cooking with Wine & Spirits

Cooking with Wine & Spirits

Wine, beer and spirits are great for cooking when done the right way. After all, wine, beer and spirits are made from food, so it can be used to cook food to compliment and enhance dishes we all love.

WHITE WINE:  If you watch a lot of the cooking shows you will see them “deglaze” with wine. What this does is pick up come of the ingredients which are clinging to the pot or pan and add flavor and acidity to the dish.  You should never use cooking wine.  Use any bottle of wine you would drink, in fact it will compliment the meal.  Even an inexpensive white wine such as Pinot Grigio that goes for $7 is better than cooking wine you might find in the supermarket.

Should you ever come across a bottle of white wine you don’t like, don’t waste it or throw it out. Put it in the fridge and use it for cooking.  Don’t worry about it going bad, it will last for quite some time and once all the alcohol cooks off, the wine has done its job.

RED WINE: Deeper, darker wines like red are great for braising. Stews that contain beef and meats low and slow in the oven are the dishes you should use red wine in.

MARSALA & SHERRY: Often there are dishes cooked with a sweeter wine which mixes with the savory elements.  While marsala is considered a dessert wine, nearly every one knows that veal or chicken marsala are classic dishes that are delicious and not sweet at all once it has cooked down.

BEER: Beer is also great for braising and compliment dishes that go best with beer like barbecue, chili, and other meat and potato dishes, especially brisket.

BRANDY & COGNAC: When you start to go out for fancier French dishes, you will see brandy and cognac being used.  I will never forget the time my friends and I went out to a very fancy place for dinner and ordered the lobster in pink cream cognac sauce.  I think the dish was about $50 at the time, probably something that would cost well over $100 today.  We ordered this as an appetizer and split it between 5-6 of us. So, we all got a piece and split 5-6 ways it was about $10.  In any case, it was delicious and I have yet to find a way to replicate it.

There are other dishes like Shrimp Grand Marnier, or Asian orange shrimp with Cointreau that also work well too.  The alcohol burns off and you get this great thick, syrupy cherry or orange taste.

RUM: Rum is distilled from sugar, molasses or sugar cane, so it has a sweeter taste.  If you ever been to a wedding, one of the “wow” desserts is Bananas Foster. They start with butter, add in sliced bananas, then a lot of rum. It flames up, burns off and gets nice and thick.

As with any thing that is flammable, you must be very cautious.  Always add the wine or spirits OFF the stove, pull it aside, add, then place back on the stove.  Keep a fire extinguisher handy, or at least the top to the pan to kill the flames.  Below you see an example of safely igniting a dish on the the right.  On the left you see one that is almost out of control.  In fact, in a normal kitchen it would be out of control, but this was in a large room with professional cooks and a dangerous hazard was avoided.

If you really like rum, one of my favorite desserts I had in Manhattan’s Little Italy, baba au rhum or Baba Rum. It is basically a soft cookie like a lady finger soaked in rum. Again, take caution.

CORDIALS & DESSERTS: If you enjoy the taste of alcohol with your desserts, try Amaretto over vanilla ice cream, Nocello or Frangelico over chocolate ice cream, and if you can find pistachio liqueur, its only natural you serve it over pistachio ice cream.

BAKING: Often Italians use anisette with sugar to glaze a cookie known as “knots”.  And of course what would tiramisu be without coffee liquor or rum?

The variations and possibilities are endless. Taste, experiment, enjoy!

Naturally if you love to cook you can experiment with other spirits, but these are what you will typically find in most dishes such as:

  • Shrimp Scampi: White wine, butter, garlic.
  • Penne A La Vodka: Vodka, cream, tomatoes (use a potato vodka not wheat in this case)
  • Meat Sauce (Sunday Gravy): Red wine, meatballs, sausages, braciole.
  • Bananas Foster: Rum, butter, bananas
  • Ice Cream & Whiskey: Bourbon, vanilla ice cream, and even Scotch works well with this.


People who worry about adding alcohol to a dish children or elderly might consume, when done right, 99% of it should burn and cook off.  Once the sauce is cooked, there should be no alcohol left, just the residual taste of the grapes and acidity you need to add that spark of flavor. It is important to note, that if someone suffers from alcoholism and/or addition, it should not be used at all.  The mere taste of grapes, brandy or vodka, even if the alcohol is not present, is enough to trigger the urge to consume an alcoholic beverage. So while the alcohol is gone, it is still best for people who suffer from the disease of alcoholism to avoid dishes like this all together.

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