Beer-basted barbeque? Been there. Drenched a dish in wine? Done that. Okay then, when was the last time you’ve whisked whiskey? … Yep, that’s what we thought.
If you think whiskey is only to be sipped than sizzled, then let us be the first to tell you: you’re wrong. And you’re missing out. With the right type, whiskey (or whisky, if you’re a Scot or a Canuck) can sizzle with the best of them.
But there are many to choose from with many styles downright Fort Knoxian in price, so which is the “right type?” For that, let’s begin with the basics.
So what in the world is Whisk(e)y anyway?
Take it away, WhiskyAdvocate.com: “Whisky is nothing more than distilled beer.”
And what’s beer? Delicious. Also, it’s malted barley and other grains, and yeast — the ingredient that converts the grains’ sugars to alcohol.
All that sugar creates a sweet liquid that beer brewers balance out by adding bitter hops. Whisky makers, on the other hand, have an alternate balancing method: locking it up in oak casks for a couple years. Before the cask treatment, they’ll distill the beer in a still.
These three elements — the grains, distillation method, and casks chosen — are the primary factors in what gives each whiskey its distinct taste.
What’s the deal with Scotch Whisky and Bourbon Whiskey?
Scotch is whisky made in Scotland (notice the missing “e”!) and made mostly from malted barley. Bourbon is whiskey made in the U.S.A. (our “e” is back!) distilled from grains (or “mash”) containing at least 51% corn.
We can even break down the U.S.A. Bourbon Whiskies a bit further. Three major kinds are Tennessee Whiskey (i.e. Jack Daniel’s), which is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal after the spirit is distilled, and Kentucky Whiskey (i.e. Jim Beam) which goes through the standard whiskey-making process. On top of those two, there’s American Rye Whiskey (i.e. Templeton Rye) which is distilled from at least 51% rye. Think of rye bread and you’re almost there.
What will the Whiskey do for my cooking?
Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Think of whiskey as less of a direct ingredient and more like, to quote The Guardian, “the alcoholic equivalent of salt.” From seafood to smoked meats to desserts, whiskey’s exceptionally wide flavor spectrum (brought to you by any number of combination of grains, distillation method, and casks) can bring out the best in any food it touches.
The spirit evaporates or “cooks off” in the process. It’s during this evaporation when the spirit’s various flavors are concentrated, bonding with your food’s fat and water molecules (science!) and infusing it with an aroma and taste that makes the entire experiment worthwhile.
Friendly word of warning: There’s a reason The Guardian calls whiskey a salt and not a sauce. Whiskies, by their very nature, boast a flavor-intensity that wine and beer can only dream of. So if this is your first experience, just remember: a little dab’ll do ya.
I’m ready to give it a shot. Got any tips?
- Cooking with whiskey is not unlike pairing your food with any other alcohol. Say you discover a whiskey with some herbal and citrus notes. Try adding a splash when concocting a savory herb and chicken dish. What if it’s a spirit that’s heavier on honey and other sweetness? Sounds perfect for influencing your next dessert or for giving your BBQ glaze sweetness sans “actual” sugar.
- Can’t detect aromas or tastes? Try simply going by the spirit’s color. If it’s on the darker end of the spectrum, try adding it to pork or beef recipes. On the lighter end, experiment with white meats or seafood. (This is also a good tactic for beers, stouts, and wines!)
- Does your recipe require a water, broth, or some other sort of liquid? Substitute a bit of it with a splash whiskey to punch up the flavor.
- Put some spirit in your skillet after chicken or steaks have had their turn to sizzle to create a pan sauce sure to turn your meal on its head.
- Finally, when you want to feel like a kid while still enjoying the privilege of age, whisk a dram of your chosen whiskey into (practically) anything with batter. Cakes, brownies, homemade cookies, pancakes… live it up.
(Editor’s note: This used to be an entry for flambé. You know, using the whiskey to set your meal on fire for taste and presentation. Obviously, this is quite dangerous and should only be attempted by professional chefs. Please don’t redefine “home cooking.”)
Is that all?
No. Not by a long shot, but maybe, just maybe, this has given you a solid jumping off point. Cooking is all about experimenting and whiskies are exceedingly varied and complex. And if you’re the type who has only considered putting whiskey in a glass than on a plate, we hope our ramblings have pushed your needle a bit more plate-wise. Just remember: A little dab’ll do ya.