Thursday, March 17, 2011

Veggie Might: One for My Teetotalers - How to Substitute Alcohol in Baking and Cooking

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

Gentle Readers, it’s St. Patrick’s day. In honor of the drinkingest holiday of the year, let's talk about booze. Sort of.

Here at CHG, we have a healthy appreciation for hootch, being responsible citizens and lovers of life. A glass of wine, a bottle of cold beer, or the occasional Jager shot a well-crafted cocktail make an evening with friends or a holiday party that much more enjoyable/tolerable.

The flavors of our favorite beverages are unmistakable, and we drink them for their good taste more than their soothing aftereffects. Or so we tell Aunt Helen. Ingredients like wine and sherry and Grand Marnier are included in recipes for the same reason. Their flavors are unmatched and give our recipes that je ne se quois we seek.

Red and white wine, vermouth, sherry, beer, bourbon, brandy, and a flavored liqueurs like coffee (Kahula, Tia Maria), orange (Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Triple Sec), and anise/licorice (Ouzo, Pernoud) are commonly used in cooking and baking recipes. These are the staples to have on hand if you’re keeping a well-stocked culinary bar.

But while the we of CHG appreciates a nip with dinner and splash in the cream sauce, the me of CHG is a reluctant teetotaler. I’ve got this brain thing that doesn’t like it when I drink, and while a little bourbon in my pecan pie is probably okay, I just don’t keep the stuff around; it’s not worth the expense for the occasional recipe—or the risk of a trip to the emergency room.

“But Leigh,” you exclaim, “it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the flavor! And all the alcohol evaporates during cooking!”

Yes: true and mostly true. Most people make tequila chicken for the enhanced flavor the liquor imparts, not to get one up on their friends at margarita night. And most, but not all alcohol is cooked away when booze is applied to recipes, though claims vary as to how much evaporates during cooking. According to Kevin Weeks at, “depending on cooking method and time, you can reduce the alcohol by 60 percent by simmering for 15 minutes, or by as much as 90 percent after two hours of simmering.” But when cooking for children or people with health or addiction issues, even a little bit can be too much.

So what then? Weeks suggests choosing another recipe, and I agree if the liquor is the distinguishing feature of the dish, like Julia Child’s famous Boeuf Bourguignon—it’s meat soaked in red wine. Something tells me it would be an altogether different experience if you decided to let your boeuf braise in grape juice overnight.

But if I passed up every fondue or stew that called for a splash of kirsch or a glug of beer, my repertoire would be quite limited—and I could toss away half of the recipes from France. So I improvise with what I have.

For example, broth or stock is an easy substitution for wine or beer in many savory dishes, like soups, sautés, and risottos. Fruit juices, like apple and grape, can replace wine in desserts. If you want a note of acid, add little vinegar. It won’t be the same, as I’m sure some would argue, but it will still be delicious.

In some cases you can just leave out the booze. Fondue will be just as good without kirsch, but keep an eye on it; the alcohol in the liqueur is there to lower the boiling point of the cheese.

In the last year I’ve made two outstanding dishes that were no worse for lack of wine. Both were from the fabulous Viva Vegan, which is still getting heavy play in my kitchen. Red Posole and Beans called for Mexican beer which I replaced in equal measure with vegetable stock, and the resulting stew was to die for.

For Quinoa-Millet Mushroom Risotto, I swapped the 1/2 cup of white wine, traditionally used in risottos, for 1/2 cup of apple juice + 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. It remains one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.

When baking, replace liqueurs with similarly flavored extracts and juices. Vanilla is the most commonly recommended stand in for bourbon; almond extract works great in place of amaretto; and brandy has its very own cooking extract. Orange, apple and grape, and pineapple juices fill the void left by orange liqueur, dry and sweet vermouth, and rum.

Now, it must be said that extracts contain alcohol, which works as a solvent to break down the fruit or herb so that the maximum amount of flavor is obtained. Vanilla extract is 35% alcohol by volume, or 70 proof, not far off from vodka. But the minute amount used in baked goods, partnered with dilution and evaporation, will unlikely cause anyone to feel its effects.

According to Cook’s Thesaurus, 1 tablespoon of brandy extract replaces 5 tablespoons of the real deal, yet measure for measure, they have a similar alcohol content. Extract is a safe alternative unless you’re abstaining for religious reasons or are hypersensitive. Flavored oils, powders, and straight-up ingredients like vanilla beans, may be your best solution if you want to avoid alcohol altogether.

We all love charts, right? Well, here are some handy charts, fresh from the Internet machine, to guide your alcohol-free baking and cooking adventures:
If you have any nonalcoholic baking or cooking tips you’d like to share, the comments are open. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Slàinte!


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