Booze Up Your Food: Spice up your meals with an age-old tradition

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It seems like every time you turn on acooking show, the host is making somethingyou would never even think aboutattempting on an ordinary weeknight. Itusually involves an inordinate amount ofchopping, grating or whisking. There'susually a thermometer of some kind Involved. And at some point, a healthyamount of booze is poured into the dish.

While we werewatching one ofthese celebrity chefsemptying half abottle of wine into apan recently, my wifeturned to me and said

"I hate wine in myfood. It just makes it taste boozy."

"Only if they do it wrong," I said.

"Nope," She retorted, "I just don't like

alcohol in my food."

"Oh, I thought you liked my chicken


Natali sat up straight and stared at meas though she had just been told that Ihad kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.

"You put wine in the stew?"

"I sure do."

We eventually worked out our issuethat night, but we did discuss the ideaof alcohol in food for some time afterwards.There are many practical reasonsone might use wine in food, actually. Tounderstand why you might want to upthe alcoholic content of your eveningentrée, let?s look at it from a scientificpoint of view.

Alcohol is a naturalpreservative.Back in the day,before everyone hada Frigidaire in theirkitchen, baked goods were made andconsumed within a day or two of beingmade, especially delicate baked goodslike cakes and pies. For a special occasionlike Christmas, when a lot of thefood had to be made beforehand, familieslooked for ways to preserve thesesweets so they would last until theywere needed.

In the United Kingdom,the tradition of dousing a pudding (orcake) in alcohol was invented to keepthe sweet stuff from drying out or rotting.This became a tradition in theSouthern United States, as well, withthe traditional spicy bourbon cakes.Now, the flavor has become synonymouswith the holidays, but it startedout of necessity.

Alcohol burns at a high temperature.Different levels of heat add differenttypes of flavor to a myriad of foods. Theidea of searing a piece of beef over highheat to create a crust, then finishing thecooking over low heat to keep the insidefrom drying out illustrates this. But whatif all you need is a mere couple of secondsof ultra-high heat toward the end ofthe cooking process to add a little extracaramelization to the dish? Add a littlealcohol and set it on fire! An alcohollike brandy burns at over 500 degreesFahrenheit. It can take just a handful ofseconds of ultra-hot, high-alcohol flameto turn a couple of slowly simmeringbananas and sugar into decadent bananasFoster.

Just as you might match a certainwine with a certain food, so, too, wouldyou use that wine to add a complimentaryflavor to your dish. While Ido think pouring a bottle of wine intoa pot of "stuff" is a technique that isa little overused, there is a culinarycomponent here that is important. It'sthe same idea you want to think aboutwhen you are pairing a wine to drinkwith a meal that you are cooking.

Takebraised brisket, for example. If you areserving a cut of brisket, which has agood deal of fat to it (and is certainlynot a light piece of meat), you woulddrink a heavy, tannic red wine to matchthat flavor profile.The same holds true for the kind ofwine you would pick to cook it in. Thewine will help break down the meat withits natural acidity, making it more tender,but the meat will also absorb the flavornotes of the vino. The end result will notonly be tender and juicy, but well balancedas well.

So before you pour that week-old, half-emptybottle down the drain, peruse thatcookbook you got as a Christmas present three years ago. You just might surpriseyourself with what you concoct!

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.

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