Y: Yum! Do you smell that, Don? That’s my secret beef recipe marinating on the stovetop.
D: That smells delicious, Yaël. But what’s so secret about it?
Y: I’ll tell you. It’s the red wine in the sauce. When you cook with alcohol, it binds to the fat and water molecules alike. Some flavors—such as herbs—are fat-soluble, meaning they dissolve best in fat; most other ingredients in the sauce are water-soluble. This means that in my marinade, a cup of wine can dissolve all the flavor compounds to the meat more effectively than a water-based sauce would.
D: Plus, like high heat or salt, alcohol breaks down proteins in meat, a process known as “denaturing.” So the wine in your marinade helps tenderize the beef.
Y: Exactly! And I swear I can taste red wine even after the dish is cooked.
D: That’s because when you cook with wine—or any spirit—it doesn’t all disappear. Alcohol’s molecules are volatile: they evaporate rapidly, which is why we often smell it so intensely. And since alcohol boils at 173 degrees Fahrenheit, versus water’s boiling point of 212 degrees, the alcohol in your pot evaporates much sooner than water. In fact, reduction, dilution, and a long cooking time are some of the best ways to reduce the percentage of alcohol left in your dish. But it’s a common misconception that it will “burn off” entirely, especially if you’ve added a whole cup of strongly flavored wine.
Y: And that’s the secret to my marinade. Want to join me for dinner, Don?
D: Absolutely—I’m starving!