Many cooks can be found in the kitchen with a drink close at hand. Sometimes a recipe’s ingredients list even calls for a glug of wine or cup of beer, giving you two reasons to open a bottle. But what about cooking with another favorite beverage—whiskey?
Like wine or beer, whiskey can enhance the complexity of an otherwise ho-hum dish. When added during the cooking process, much of the alcohol burns off, leaving behind a concentrated well of flavors. If mixed in as a finishing touch, whiskey can complement other ingredients while highlighting its own unique qualities. Even those accustomed to hours of nosing and sipping whiskey can find new flavors revealed in the kitchen.
Deciding what kind of whiskey to use depends on the type of food you’re cooking. With its sweet vanilla profile, bourbon lends itself perfectly to desserts like pecan pie and chocolate mousse. A peated Scotch fits naturally into hearty chowder, chili or stew. Spicy rye combines with herbs, honey and vinegar as an ideal glaze for chicken, pork or salmon. Light and floral, Irish whiskey makes a great braising liquid.
There’s no need to use the “good stuff,” either, unless the whiskey features prominently or goes in at the end of the cooking process. Just as you might finish off a bottle of wine by stirring it into your pasta sauce, feel free to use that cheap whiskey someone brought to your Christmas party, but no one actually drank. The subtle nuances you notice in the glass won’t be so obvious in a prepared dish.
Pyrotechnic potential is another bonus of cooking with whiskey. Try this dessert—a take on Bananas Foster that I call Flambéed Whiskey Bananas—the next time you want to wow someone. (If setting things ablaze gives you pause, you can enjoy it without the spectacle.) In a heavy skillet, melt four tablespoons of butter and stir in a half cup of brown sugar and a half cup of bourbon or unpeated Scotch. Stir continuously until the sugar is dissolved, then add three or four bananas, thickly sliced. Simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened and the bananas softened, then get ready to flambé. (If skipping this step, simmer an additional five minutes.) Carefully light the sauce using a grill lighter and monitor closely until it stops burning. Scoop vanilla or coffee ice cream into four bowls, then evenly divide the bananas among them, spooning the sauce on top. Garnish with chopped nuts or a dollop of whipped cream.