There are a number of reasons alcohol is off-limits for some people when cooking or baking, such as an allergy or an inability to use it when preparing food for children or those who might be in recovery. Maybe it’s not in your pantry, now that we’re shopping less often, or even your budget.
Regardless of the rationale, know that your recipe will likely taste fine without the alcohol. Just don’t count on it cooking it off in instances where you can’t serve it to someone. According to a chart of nutrient retention from the USDA, baked or simmered goods can retain as much as 40% of the alcohol after 15 minutes, with the amounts decreasing as time goes on, down to 5% after 2½ hours. Even setting alcohol on fire gets rid of a mere 25% of it.
When deciding whether to omit or find an alternative to alcohol, the first thing to ask yourself is what purpose is it serving, says David Joachim, who wrote “The Food Substitutions Bible.” That purpose will likely fall into one of two categories: flavor or function.
The good news is that in almost all recipes that call for alcohol, the purpose is to add flavor.
“Generally, it’s not the alcohol” itself that’s important, Joachim says. One of the major exceptions would be if you planned to, say, set fire to your bananas Foster. Otherwise, take solace that “all alcoholic beverages are primarily water,” Joachim says, meaning you can just focus on how to duplicate the flavor and acidity it delivers.
Joachim notes that alcohol can “improve the flavor perception” by bonding with other ingredients, such as in a marinade with oil where it can attach to both the water and fat molecules. Still, in savory cooking, the alcoholic beverage or extract is primarily a medium for carrying flavor, and that can often be accomplished by using nonalcoholic ingredients, too. Here’s how.
Wine. Don’t overthink things: “This is a liquid made from fermented grapes,” Joachim says, adding that acidity is one of the main features of wine, which has a pH of 3 to 4. Tomato juice has a similar pH. So does coffee, which is an especially good stand-in for a pinot. If subbing in one of those ingredients for red wine, add a small amount of honey or sugar to bring in the restrained sweetness you might have gotten with wine.In a sauce, soup or braise, beef broth can replace red wine. Joachim recommends adding a little vinegar and sugar here as well. Consider chicken broth as a lighter substitute for white wine, again with some vinegar and sugar added. For smaller amounts, such as when deglazing a pan, a splash of vinegar – red wine, if that’s acceptable, or cider – is a possibility.
Grape juice naturally comes to mind as the alcohol-free alternative to wine but even unsweetened varieties skew sweet. If you want to try that approach, cut it with water, adding some tartness via vinegar or citrus juice. Now is also the time to consider the ever-expanding world of nonalcoholic wines.
Beer. Nonalcoholic beer is a simple swap. It’s not the only option, however. In a stew or soup, feel free to replace the beer with chicken stock. If a very small amount of alcohol is acceptable, a few dashes of Angostura bitters can work back in the slight bitterness you’d otherwise get in the beer, Joachim says. If that’s not doable, go ahead and throw some orange rind in your soup or braise. Here is where you want to include the white pith, Joachim says, because that’s where the bitter flavor resides.In situations where the carbonation of the beer is serving a functional purpose, such as in a beer-battered recipe, you can use sparkling water instead. In the right context, a sweetened soda or ginger beer might work, though you may want to balance it out with something bitter like orange rind.
Hard cider. This popular beverage great for sipping and cooking offers both apple flavor and carbonation. If you can find a dry nonalcoholic cider, go ahead and use that. Some of the bottled brands lean sweet, though some hard cider makers also are bottling their own alcohol-free versions. Unsweetened apple cider is another option. Cider vinegar will help bring in the more savory edge you’d get from hard cider, but if you use it, Joachim suggests mixing it with cider or unsweetened juice, because it will be too tart for a one-to-one swap.Extracts. Traditional extracts are typically alcohol-based. Several companies, including Heilala and Frontier, offer alcohol-free vanilla extracts and flavorings. Frontier’s line also includes other flavors, such as almond, lemon and peppermint. Another option: flavor or candy oils. These are super-concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Whereas you may be used to thinking about extracts in terms of teaspoons, oils need to be used by the drop.Joachim also encourages cooks to think about getting as close to the original source ingredient as possible. No vanilla extract? A vanilla bean can do the trick, too, if it’s within your financial means (you can get double the use out of it by burying your spent pod in sugar to be used in a subsequent bake). Lemon and orange extracts are easily replaced with citrus zest, packed with the aromatic essential oils. Rub the zest into the sugar in your recipe first to bring out its potential. Ditto mint leaves. Crushed peppermint candies can flavor the liquid in a recipe, too. Vanilla beans or almonds can be steeped in heated milk or cream for another flavor infusion option.
Be OK with thinking outside the box. Consider what different flavors might get you to a similar place. Cardamom, for example, can be a decent – or even more interesting! – stand-in for vanilla extract. They both share a warm, enticing floral aroma.
Liquor and liqueurs. Flavored liqueurs often make their way into baked goods. Here’s another spot where you can replicate the original flavor. Coffee-flavored liqueurs can be replaced with espresso powder dissolved in water or plain brewed coffee; ditto chocolate liqueur and cocoa powder. No orange liqueur? Orange juice to the rescue. Joachim says bourbon flavors are primarily caramel and vanilla, so you can instead caramelize some sugar and mix that with water. Or pivot to a nonalcoholic vanilla extract or flavor, which also works for almond flavors when a recipe calls for something like amaretto. Keep in mind that extracts and flavor oils will be more concentrated, so you’ll want to cut back the amount when swapping for liqueur.Some pie crust recipes call for vodka. The premise is that the vodka will provide moisture to make the dough easier to work with without adding as much water, which contributes to the formation of gluten – and potentially toughness – when combined with the proteins in the flour. If vodka is a no-go, simply substitute more ice water, taking care not to overwork the dough. (Or go with a recipe that only uses water.)
Alcohol-free spirits also are on the rise, with brands such as Seedlip offering alternatives to standbys such as gin.