While full-flavored liqueurs, such as Grand Marnier, lend their distinctive flavor to recipes, even spirits with a neutral flavor, like vodka, enhance the flavors in a dish (think tomato-vodka sauce). Here’s how it works.
“Alcohol dissolves chemicals that otherwise might be locked up in cells,” Marcia Levin Pelchat, Ph.D., a sensory scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center, explains. “Even chemicals that don’t dissolve in fat do dissolve in alcohol. It unmasks flavors that otherwise might be less noticeable.” For example, compounds in chile peppers are more soluble in alcohol, and once that flavor has been released, we can taste it.
One practical application of this principle is in low-fat cooking. Although it’s not a substitute for fat, putting a little alcohol in a low-fat recipe can help boost flavors.
Dr. Pelchat points out that you don’t need to use a lot of alcohol to take advantage of its flavor-enhancing properties. A few tablespoons usually suffice.
While nonalcoholic substitutes can be fine for replacing liquid in a recipe and contributing a similar flavor, they don’t have alcohol’s ability to release flavors.