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As I begin cooking more advanced recipes, I've stumbled across a few that required small amounts (tablespoons) of (expensive) spirits such as Cognac, vodka, etc. The problem is that I don't keep that kind of stuff lying around (Oh God, that would end SO badly). My question is this: When a recipe calls for small amounts of something expensive (like Cognac), what does it (generally) add to the dish? Also, what non-spirit related food items are good substitutes?

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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The primary purpose is for flavor. If it's the expense of a large bottle for a few tablespoons here and there you should be able to buy the mini bottles (as are served on airplanes) from a local liquor store.

If you don't want to use or have it around due to issues with alcohol then look for other items that have as similar flavor to substitute. Sherry has a sweet nutty flavor to it and apple juice can often work suitably well. Keep in mind you'll probably not find an exact flavor match but it can be close. A small amount of orange extract could be used in place of grand marnier. Depending on the item, you might also try flavored syrups that are used for coffee drinks. Remember that these have a lot of sugar in them so you'll need to compensate by cutting back on sugar elsewhere in the recipe and obviously don't use them where the sweet flavor wouldn't be welcome.

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I disagree with the first sentence as written. If you meant the primary purpose for expensive liquor vs cheap, it makes sense, but I don't think things like vodka are added for flavoring. –  Tim Gilbert Aug 3 '10 at 3:10
    
@Tim Gilbert: It depends. I agree that vodka does not add flavor, but try a table spoon of Cognac in a light broth and taste before and after. It's a world of difference. –  nalply Aug 3 '10 at 8:29
    
@Tim Gilbert: Vodka is only one of many liquors out there. I agree...I've never really understood Vodka & Tomato sauce myself but in the case of brandy, vermouth, amaretto, chambord, rum, kahlua, etc. they are flavoring elements. I wasn't even addressing "expense" side other than the size of the bottle vs. what is used. The amount of alcohol used is in most recipes so so slight that the choice of a more expensive brand over a cheaper one is never going to be noticed. –  Darin Sehnert Aug 3 '10 at 11:07
    
Mini bottle availablity will vary by jurisdiction, but even places that ban them will often sell pints. –  dmckee Aug 4 '10 at 14:43
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My guess is that most of those type of recipes get born out of someone experimenting with whatever is in their pantry.

For relatively small amounts compared to the whole recipe, substituting it with a cheaper liquor, vinegar, juice, stocks, syrup or extract probably won't have a large impact.

However, for best results, you need to be familiar with the type of liquor, and why it is a part of the recipe, in order to know what's is the best replacement for it. Is it included for the acidity, for the sweetness, for the boiling point, etc.

Here is a page that has some recommendations for substitutions. http://ezinearticles.com/?Clever-Substitutions-For-Alcohol-in-Recipes&id=3923408

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You asked what does it [alchohol] add?

Vodka has good rep when using it in batter, I figure it's mostly because of it's neutral flavour and high alcohol content. See:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/heston_blumenthal/article631377.ece

And: http://mysocialchef.com/2010/04/vodka-fish-and-chips/

The good news is that you probably don't have to buy a premium vodka to get the same effects. Also the Heston Blumenthhal recipe mentions that the Lager beer is pretty effective (because of the bubbles), so perhaps you can just get away with just the lager.

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It's mentioned in the first link, but so it's recorded here in case of link rot -- one of the advantages to vodka in batters is that it won't develop gluten the same way that water would, so you'll end up with a more tender crust. –  Joe Apr 6 '11 at 4:33
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Cognac --> Brandy Sherry and Port, I generally find a decent inexpensive one - Emu Sherry, Kopke port.

As far as vodka goes, I don't bother. Vodka is typically added to batters so that the alcohol evaporating drinks some of the oil out of the batter.

A much better option is to use 150 proof Alcool or Grain Spirits. It's cheap, and works better. (Usually sold as a home-made liqueur base)

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