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I have a cake that calls for 4 Tablespoons of brandy. I don't have any brandy in the house, nor any kind of liquor at all (besides maybe red wine vinegar which doesn't help much). Is there anything I can substitute, or should I just skip? (I think I've skipped the brandy sometimes before when making this recipe and it came out fine.)

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Skip it - your only option might be to boil off some of the alcohol from the brandy, but if you don't have any you're going to struggle finding anything that will taste remotely like it. – ElendilTheTall Sep 26 '11 at 7:37
As rumtscho suggests in a comment below, 4 tablespoons is not an insignificant amount. The issue is that the alcohol in the brandy will not react with the flour to create gluten the way water does. Therefore, if you replace the brandy with any liquid that is largely water, you are going to end up with a slightly tougher/chewier cake. – ESultanik Sep 27 '11 at 15:13
People seem to have taken this question as a statement that I specifically don't have alcohol and don't want alcohol in the recipe. This is not the case. I just happened not to have any alcohol on hand when I was baking the cake. (And as a follow-up, I ended up skipping the brandy entirely and the cake was delicious :) ) – clueless Sep 27 '11 at 21:15
up vote 7 down vote accepted

It depends what the recipe is, but I've successfully replaced brandy with orange juice or apple juice in the past. It's not a direct replacement for the flavour, of course, but gives a similar strength of flavour, if you see what I mean.

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+1 for not just skipping it. The brandy would affect not only the taste, but also the consistency of the batter. At 4 tbsp, it is important to replace the liquid with something else. – rumtscho Sep 26 '11 at 11:57

I don't think there is a recipe that will give you trouble if you just skip the liquor.

As for substitutes, I would says add a bit of brandy extract, you can find small bottles in the supermarket. You can add other liquor extracts (rum etc.) if you don't like the taste of brandy. But be careful to adjust the amount. I think 1 Tbsp of extract will me more than enough in your recipe here.

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I would probably make a simple syrup and heat it and then steep some chopped raisins or dates in it for an hour or two, and then use some liquid from that instead of the brandy. That way you're adding some flavor, but without the alcohol. Much like the other suggestions, it won't be exactly the same as adding brandy or other liquor, though.

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I don't wish to detract from those saying "skip it", except that I would draw attention to the fact that if you choose to "skip it" there is a price to pay, you loose the flavor that brandy provides. This does not mean that your product will be 'bad' just 'different'.

As for those advancing the idea of Vanilla, In the US Vanilla Extract is a MINIMUM of 35% alcohol (or 70 proof). The flavor change may indeed be fine, but it is not an alcohol free decision to switch from brandy to vanilla extract.

The actual process of baking removes much (but not all) of the alcohol from the final product. Then there is apportionment to consider. 4 Tbl is 2 shots, or roughly the amount of alcohol in 2 beers, before reduction. If you start with 4 Tbl and bake for one hour you are down to 1/2 of one beer, apportioned over 8 to 10 servings. Each consumer will receive the approximate amount of alcohol as the consumption from looking at a bottle of beer (ok, 1/16 of a beer...)

Now I appreciate that you may well have important reasons to maintain a standard of "no alcohol" and I would not attempt to dissuade you from those values. If, however, something like vanilla extract is an acceptable cooking ingredient then too should small amounts of other alcohols be acceptable when treated as an ingredient.

That said, if you wish to substitute for brandy then your best choice is whiskey.

Brandy is a distilled wine (fermented grape mash) which has been aged in oak barrels. Whiskey is distilled from a fermented grain mash and then aged in oak barrels. In each case the oak is the primary source of flavor (while distillation and quality of the mash contribute to the 'smoothness' the flavor is OAK)

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Depending on the recipe, you might be able to substitute additional vanilla extract to give more flavor. I wouldn't recommend doing a whole 4 tablespoons as vanilla is much more concentrated than actual brandy, but maybe 1-2 teaspoons vanilla + some water or apple juice to end up with the right overall amount of liquid? If cake recipe uses milk already, use vanilla + milk.

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