Easy substitutes to make alcohol-free dishes

Posted March 29, 2011, at 5:25 p.m.

It’s a common kitchen dilemma.

You’re perusing a cookbook or website for a mouth-watering recipe.

You scan the ingredients list, mentally ticking off what you have on hand.

Excitement comes to a screeching halt, however, when you see that you need a dry red wine to deglaze the pan or amaretto liqueur to add a nutty flavor to your chocolate cake.

Just because you don’t have the needed alcohol in the house doesn’t mean you have to rush out to buy a bottle or ditch the recipe. Plenty of substitutes can pinch-hit for alcohol in savory and sweet dishes.

“People are afraid to substitute, and the fact that they’re fearful cooks limits them,” said Becky Sue Epstein, who wrote “Substituting Ingredients: The A to Z Kitchen Reference” (Sourcebooks, $9.99, 208 pages).

The trick is in the w’s: why the alcohol is being used, when it’s being used and what can be swapped in its place.

While most of the alcohol in recipes cooks off after a certain amount of time, in most cases alcohol is being used to add flavor or in some cases acidity to a dish, Epstein said.

No dry red wine for that slow-braised stew? No problem. Stock or bouillon will work fine in its place.

A few drops of lemon juice or tomato sauce (depending on whether any is called for in the recipe) will add the needed acidity, she said.

“Lemon can really brighten things up,” Epstein said.

To build the flavor, try increasing the herbs to one-and-a-half times the called-for amount.

If it’s a pan sauce that uses marsala or wine, the same tips hold true. Just stay away from vinegar, because it could leave the sauce with a sour flavor, she cautioned.

If you don’t want to use alcohol in your savory dish but are looking for the rustic flavor that wine can impart, consider using a nonalcoholic wine, suggested Cathey Birum, a certified sommelier in Sacramento.

“Honestly, there are some nonalcoholic wines that if you were to smell and taste them next to regular wine, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” she said.

When it comes to wine and substitutions, another good option is unsweetened varietal grape juice, suggested Ann Pittman, executive editor of food at Cooking Light magazine.

“Those are great for these uses because they will taste closer to what the wine would taste like and give you that sort of essence without the alcohol,” she said.

That doesn’t mean Pittman endorses grape juice in place of wine. Traditional grape juice is too sweet and won’t work.

Apple juice, however, is a good substitute for white wine, although only in small quantities. If the recipe that serves eight people calls for ¼ cup of dry white wine, it’s OK to swap in some Mott’s. “If you’re getting into bigger amounts, you need to be very careful,” she said.

If the recipe calls for hefty amounts of alcohol and you’re not keen on that flavor, it might be best to move on, said Barbara Bowman, owner of GourmetSleuth.com, an online gourmet food and cooking resource based in Los Gatos.

“If the whole flavor profile is based around an alcohol, then pick another recipe,” she said.

When it comes to alcohol and baking, it’s flavor equivalents, not substitutions, that are needed.

If a recipe calls for brandy and you don’t have any or don’t care for the distilled spirit’s flavor, try vanilla extract in an equal amount. Don’t have Kirschwasser, a German cherry-flavored brandy, for that Black Forest cake? Use a little juice from a jar of maraschino cherries.

Alcohol flavorings, such as brandy, rum and amaretto, tend to work well too.

“You can get a pretty good likeness without having alcohol,” Bowman said.

But no matter what you use in place of alcohol, the key is to taste your dish every step of the way, author Epstein said.

And remember to write down your adjustments for future reference.

“Literally write it on your recipe,” she said. “Good recipes have spatters and notes on them.”

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COOKING WITH ALCOHOL, DECODED

Dry white wine (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay aged in stainless steel barrels)

Substitutes per 1 cup: 1 cup of sherry, vermouth, sake, mirin, stock (chicken, vegetable, fish, veal) or ¾ cup white grape or apple juice plus ¼ cup lemon juice or vinegar

Dry red wine (cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, Bordeaux, some merlot)

Substitutes per 1 cup: Beef stock, nonalcoholic red wine, unsweetened grape juice (same varietal if possible), beer, soaking liquid from dried mushrooms or sun-dried tomatoes.

Beer

Substitute: chicken or beef stock, sake, ginger ale

Cointreau or Grand Marnier

Substitute: Orange juice (boiling down helps concentrate flavor) or frozen orange juice concentrate

Bourbon

Substitute: Vanilla extract, apple cider, cognac, brandy or rum

Other ideas: Don’t want to spend a fortune on a full-size bottle of liqueur, but still want the flavor in your finished dish? Head to a large liquor retailer, such as BevMo! There you’ll find mini bottles in dozens of varieties, such as Frangelico, Marker’s Mark, Grand Marnier and Amaretto DiSaronno.

The minis are huge among home cooks looking for 1 to 2 tablespoons to add to their dishes, said Mark Ryan, marketing director for BevMo!

How’s this for a difference: A 750-milliter bottle of Grand Marnier retails for $34.98. The 50-milliliter mini bottle? $5.99.

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