May 2006 Edition
A Spirited Approach - Cooking with Distilled Spirits

Bourbon or Canadian whisky works well in marinades and basting sauces for dishes such as ribs.


Taking a spirited approach to cooking means going behind the bar for flavour enhancers and new ways to bring meals to life. A splash of vodka, gin or liqueur can add a new dimension to salads, meat dishes, pasta sauces and desserts.

“Think of it as a spice or a condiment,” says Michael Fagan, manager of the LCBO’s Knowledge Resources Group.

Different spirits enhance different types of foods, he explains. For example, white spirits such as vodka and gin work very well with anything tomato-based, Fagan says. Heavier spirits such as scotch or Canadian whiskies bring new elements to more robust foods such as stews, and brandy or cognac makes a nice addition to sauces for steaks.

Bourbon or Canadian whisky works well in marinades and basting sauces for dishes such as ribs.

“They go nicely with the molasses and the sugars and everything else that you’d throw into those sauces,” Fagan explains. “They also help as a bit of a tenderizer.”

Using spirits with flavours traditionally associated with the main dish is another way to add new dimensions. Fagan suggests using calvados in pork recipes.

“Picking up on the apple flavour is kind of fun,” he says.

Introducing spirits into a recipe can be as simple as deglazing a pan. Fagan suggests using gin or vodka this way with pan-fried shrimp cooked with butter and lemon. Gin or vodka can also liven up a simple tomato or meat sauce for pasta.

Another unexpected place where spirits can make an exciting change is in salad dressings. Substituting vodka, gin, scotch or rum for the vinegar in a traditional vinaigrette, and toying with different spices and seasonings, is a fun way to up the voltage on a simple salad.

“It’s a use for spirits that many people don’t think about,” Fagan says. “I find using spirits in dressings also helps make salad -- as a course -- more wine-friendly, because the vinegar in a dressing can often be a challenge for pairing wines. Using a spirit can make that an easier pairing.”

Liqueurs can play a major role in desserts, for both flavour and presentation. Fagan says crepes are making a comeback, complete with flambé drama.

“That’s part of the fun of cooking with spirits,” Fagan says. “You just want to be careful that you know what you’re doing.”

Try kirsch or Grand Marnier or even different types of schnapps, depending on the kind of fruit your crepes incorporate.

To make the most of spirits in the kitchen, Fagan recommends experimenting.

“That’s how I started playing around with cooking with spirits,” he says. “One of my favourite things was just sautéing mushrooms to go with a steak dinner, and then adding a splash of Benedictine, or Benedictine and brandy, to the butter and mushrooms as they were cooking. That herbaceous character really added a unique flavour.”

Fagan has recommended some ideas for salads, sauces and crepes to get you started. Try a few of these suggestions, and then try some spirited combinations of your own.


Spirited Salads

Substitute spirits for the vinegar in this classic vinaigrette:

1 oz vinegar

3 oz oil

1/8 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper



Using orange flavoured liqueur instead of vinegar, add the zest and juice of ½ an orange, along with minced shallots, chives and sesame oil.



Using gin instead of vinegar, add lemon juice, roasted peppers, minced roasted garlic, walnut oil and toasted pecans.




Using sambuca instead of vinegar, add Dijon mustard, orange zest and juice, cardamom seeds, celery seeds and green onion.



Spirited Sauces for Chicken

Canadian Whisky

Roast and grind 1 oz peanuts.

Sauté 2 shallots, 1 clove garlic, ¼ tsp ginger, ½ a minced red pepper and ½ a minced green pepper.