Water and ethanol. Atomic weights and density. Solubility and volatility. And why cooking with alcohol smells better.
Why do some of us like to cook our meats with wine or beer, instead of drinking them?
The alcohol that we drink is known chemically as ethanol (sometimes ethyl alcohol). Meat is made up of compounds such as protein, water, fats and muscles. When we are cooking with alcohol, the water molecules in these meat compounds are replaced by the alcohol’s ethanol molecules. Some of the meat compounds are also soluble in the ethanol.
Hence there are two reasons cooking with alcohol smells good. The first is that when the ethanol evaporates, we smell some of these meat compounds (read why these compounds are soluble in the 1-Minute NomNom “Water you mean I’m fat too?“), adding to the rich aromas of our cooking, which will leave others hungering to try the food.
Just as importantly, ethanol is lighter than water. Its carbon and hydrogen atoms weigh less than water’s oxygen and hydrogen atoms. It is also less dense than water because its molecules are packed less tightly within the same volume. Ethanol molecules thus need less energy to escape, and as a result ethanol evaporates more easily, i.e. more volatile, and we are more likely to smell more of it.
Different types of alcohol seems to have different effects on different meats:
“…the sharpness of hard liquor works best with pork and least well with beef; I suspect this is because hard alcohol emphasizes beef’s mineral-like flavors. Chicken takes well to tequila and rum, as does pork, which also pairs nicely with bourbon and even Scotch. Lamb does well with Scotch and Irish whiskey. Brandy seems to work with almost everything if thoughtfully used.” (Source: NPR)
Cooking with alcohol is not just for meats. What is true of meat is also true of other foods such as vegetables, fruits, sauces and marinades. Do you like the smell of food prepared with alcohol? Is it very different from not using alcohol? Share your thoughts, photos, diagrams and links with me in the comments section!
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photos: in order – depositphotos/Molishka88; Albo73;Greatstock; olla.davies; fanfon; monkeybusiness