Monday, September 1, 2008

Cooking with Spirit

(This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Cooking section of the Wednesday, September 13, 2006 print edition of The Washington Examiner, page 33; reposted here mostly to maintain a record and fill space. This was a companion piece to my beef/salmon steak in whisky cream sauce recipe.)

The notion that wine, beer, and sometimes spirits can make for an excellent accompaniment to a fine meal is now fairly common. Yet few folks seem as persuaded about using their tipple in their cooking as an ingredient. This reluctance is unfortunate. Cooking with wines, liqueurs, beers, and spirits is an easy way to add some seriously delicious flavor and complexity to even fairly simple dishes. This is particularly so with Scotch whisky, an otherwise neglected culinary ingredient.

Sauces, marinades and stews all are good candidates for a bit of Scotch whisky to enhance the taste. Whisky will add to the flavor of dishes as varied as fish, meats and desserts.

Cooking is a complex choreography of aromas, flavors, textures and heat producing something very tasty, or very nasty. The devil is in the details – finding the right interplay or balance of aromas and flavors and textures, without mucking up the application of heat (through over or under cooking). Balance is key.

Cooking with whisky shares the same basic principles as cooking with wine, or any other booze, in that boiling down the liquid concentrates the flavors, but only up to a point. The idea is to reduce and concentrate it, not evaporate all the flavor all away. Unlike wine, whisky has a higher alcohol content, the flavors are generally more robust and pronounced, and so usually only a little liquid is needed. Also the hard stuff has a much longer shelf-life than wine, so feel free to reach for that really expensive Scotch you were given years ago but have been afraid to open. Just be sure to stick to flavors that will work in concert with the rest of your dish.

First and foremost, choose your “cooking” booze the way you would your other ingredients, with the emphasis on quality and taste, and with an eye towards how the flavors will work together. Unless you have a particular favorite whisky in mind for a given recipe, I heartily recommend the Famous Grouse Finest Scotch whisky. The Grouse, as it generally known in Scotland where it has consistently been the number one selling whisky since 1980, is a delicious, rounded, mild and elegant blended Scotch whisky, with decidedly appealing aromas and flavors of delicate fruits (ranging from apricot to orange to currant), sherry, soft peat, lavender, young oak wood, caramelized ginger, sweet grain and spice. The Famous Grouse is a great baseline Scotch to work with in general, whether in cooking or cocktails, because it is balanced, inexpensive, easy to find, and utterly delectable on its own.

Do not, however, shy away from cooking with single malt Scotches. As the flavor characteristics involved with single malts are more distinct than blends, the tastes you are working and playing with require a bit more thought in the dish. The trick is to experiment; the more you cook with whisky, the more comfortable you will be in selecting the right Scotch to enhance your gastronomic creations.

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