Spirited Cooking: The Best Types of Liquor to Use


The holiday season, with family gatherings and busy kitchens, is always a time when cooks break out the liquor for those once-a-year sauces and desserts. Kevin Weeks of NPR has written about the rapid depletion of his liquor stock over the holidays as he uses it to punch up everything from main dishes to desserts, and many other cooks can relate.

If you really love to cook, though, you know that alcohol can add flavor and richness to recipes throughout the year. The four best types to have on hand in the kitchen are bourbon, brandy, vodka and rum.

Alcohol Content

First, let’s say a word about alcohol content. There is a common belief that alcohol dissipates when it is heated, leaving only the flavor behind. This is not quite true. If you need to know specifics to accommodate someone’s alcohol sensitivities, the USDA has an excellent chart that shows the amount of alcohol retained under various circumstances.

How Liquor Enhances Cooking

Liquor makes things taste better in two ways. The most obvious is that it directly adds flavor and aroma to the dish. Second, alcohol bonds with both water and fat, so it is able to take flavors that are only water-soluble or fat-soluble and bring them together.

The Four Stars

– Bourbon. Bourbon has become a star of the kitchen because of its distinctive flavor and versatility. Yes, you can put it in fruitcake, but you can also put it in everything from marinades to buttercream frosting. It holds true to its Southern heritage by being particularly compatible with barbecue sauce, pecans, peaches, pork and mint.

– Brandy. Many people know brandy as the cause of all the drama in a flambe. Besides all that excitement, brandy perks up side dishes like sweet potatoes and carrots and creates the classic flavor of glazed ham. It can be added to whipped cream to enhance any dessert and even gives a bit of an extra kick to the after-dinner coffee.

– Vodka. Although vodka has a reputation for being without flavor, it does make a noticeable difference when used in cooking. It is particularly useful when you need to blend flavors in creamy recipes, like cream sauces for pasta or desserts like tiramisu.

– Rum. Sweet, sugary rum is a perfect addition to many dessert recipes. It goes particularly well with cinnamon, ginger, bananas and raisins. If you want to use it in a main dish, try it as the “sweet” in the sweet and sour sauce of your favorite Asian recipe.

Cooking with liquor is not just for special occasions. If you make a point of keeping bourbon, brandy, rum and vodka on hand, you will find countless delicious ways to put them to work in the kitchen.