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The Proof Is In The Pudding - Recap

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Alton explains that for centuries cooks have touted the virtues of cooking with alcohol, often with beer and wine for the subtle flavors they impart. At other times, they extol the virtues of distilled spirits like whiskey, vodka, and fortified wines like marsala and brandy. But whichever spirit a cook might choose, Alton recommends a clear of the spirit and more generally of the roles alcohol plays in cooking, careful consideration and a conservative wrist. For the next half hour, he will examine the use of alcohol as a cooking ingredient. Is it just an excuse to “lube up” the cook, or is it truly Good Eats!

From behind a wide array of bottles, Alton explains that spirits come in many bottles, representing many flavors and prepared according to many traditions. All have one thing in common: alcohol. Before he can cook with it, Alton needs to understand this curious compound. The word alcohol itself comes from an Arabic word that means “eyeshadow” of all curious things. In chemistry, the term refers to a wide array of compounds. With some chemical modeling tools, Alton explains that alcohols all have a hydroxyl group attached somewhere, a group that consists of an oxygen/hydrogen pair bonded together.

All alcohols are toxic to some degree. Methyl alcohol contains a single carbon atom bound to three hydrogen atoms and a hydroxyl group. Alton advises against drinking this one: it causes blindness and can be fatal. Isopropyl alcohol contains three carbon atoms in a line, with the hydroxyl group attached to the second carbon and hydrogen atoms elsewhere. It is a drying agent and a topical antiseptic. And finally there is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which has just two carbon atoms.

Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is also toxic, but not nearly as toxic as other alcohols, and human cells can metabolize it. It is a product of fermentation – the consumption of sugars by yeast, which are abundant everywhere (the abundance of alcohol is likely why humans evolved mechanisms for handling it). Yeast may have evolved the ability to produce this compound so they could poison their surroundings, preventing other microorganisms from competing for their food. But even yeast will die if there is too much alcohol in their environment.

Ethanol infiltrates cells (particularly, neurons) where it causes mild to severe havoc with normal functions, including a downgrading of social graces, table manners, and the ability to operate heavy machinery (Alton adds this last comment as he watches two “college students” surrounded by bottles and behaving badly.)

When people ferment fruit juice, particularly grape juice, they call the result wine. If they ferment a mash made from grains, that produces beer. And other plants can be used for fermentation as well (here, Alton eyes an agave cactus). But that's the subject of another show. Wines and beer can be distilled, a process that produces stronger spirits such as vodka.

Distillation, a chemical process, exploits the low boiling point of ethanol. At 172° F, it turns to vapor long before water does, as Alton demonstrates with an arrangement of a copper kettle and various tubes, resting on his stove. He cautions that home distillation is illegal, chiefly because it cuts into tax revenues, but also because it is dangerous. But one might accomplish it by placing wine or beer in a boiler, and bringing the temperature to 176° F, just above the boiling point of ethanol but well below that of water. The ethanol (and some other volatile chemicals) evaporates and rises from the boiler into an arrangement of coiled tubes where it condenses back down to a liquid, along with some of those nasty chemical companions (moonshiners typically throw away the first part of a distillation run for this reason).

Alton's coil of copper plumbing ends above a flask into which a clear fluid slowly drips. This, the product of a single distillation, would give the imbiber a hangover that would make him long for the sweet release of death, or so Alton advises. Professionals usually distill spirits more than once, and sometimes filter them through charcoal, to remove the nastier chemical toxins responsible for these effects. The end of all this is essentially vodka, a clear spirit. Sometimes, distillers leave few ingredients, such as conjoners, in the spirit. They age the spirit in wooden barrels (often charred inside), where the ethanol and other organic compounds react with compounds in the wood to alter the flavor characteristics of the brew. The stuff Alton has produced? Little better than paint thinner!

But that doesn't mean law enforcement doesn't care! They've got Alton under a spotlight from a hovering helicopter, and they send down a basket into which they instruct him to put “the good stuff”. He refuses to cease his scientific experimentation, and resents their characterization of him as a moonshiner when he is properly a scientist!

Shortly thereafter Alton returns home, thanking an officer for the ride, and reveals that since the matter of his bail has been settled, he can resume his intellectual endeavors! Having discussed most of the properties of ethanol, Alton is nearly ready to cook. But one most important property remains: ethanol is flammable! A class of dishes called flambés exploit this property, but the preparation of these dishes comes with certain important rules.

The most important flambé rule is to clear the airspace above the pan. Nothing flammable should be where flames could reach it. The second is never add fuel while the heat is on. Turn off the heat source, add the fuel, and if appropriate turn the heat back on. Finally, Alton recommends keeping a tightly fitting lid handy to douse flames if they get out of control. The lid must fit the pot tightly, since the goal is to deprive the fire of oxygen. And now that he has laid down the rules, he's ready to cook.

Alton adds water and milk to a saucepan, lids, over high heat. When that heats, he whisks in some grits (down south, that's white hominy corn). He could use yellow cornmeal, but that's really polenta. He drops the heat to low and cooks that for fifteen minutes or so until it turns creamy, then turns the heat off and adds some butter, then some pepper, stirring until they're incorporated. He finishes with an optional (but not to him) ingredient, sharp cheddar. He lids that and turns his attention to the shrimp.

Shrimp cooking starts with a non-stick pan on high heat for forty-five seconds or so, until water beads up and dances on the surface of the pan. He adds his shrimp at that point, peeled and deveined but with the tails still on. He chases them with just a bit of kosher salt and cooks them until they just begin to turn opaque, then turns the heat off and adds some bourbon and lights it. He turns the heat back on, to a medium level designed to keep the liquid at a light boil. The shrimp is not what's on fire; strictly speaking, neither is the booze. What's actually on fire are the alcohol vapors fumes coaxed from the liquid by the heat. And that brings Alton to a discussion of proofing.

Standing behind a laboratory table, Alton explains that years ago alcoholic spirits were proofed by mixing them with black powder, an experiment he plans to repeat. He adds a little black powder to a each of three glass dishes, then mixes a bit of spirits with each. Into one, he adds a spirit that is 95% alcohol by volume (abv), into another a spirit that is 75.9% abv, and into the last, a spirit that is 16% abv. The more alcohol, the longer and brighter the flame will burn before the powder burns. Each dish burns as predicted, with the highest proof burning the longest and the lowest not burning at all. The “proof” value (in the United States) is defined as twice the abv percentage, so the theoretical maximum proof is 200.

Alton looks for an 80 proof spirit for flambé cooking, or 40% abv. Less than that and it won't light properly; greater than that and it won't burn long enough to properly flambé the food. In addition, faster burns can be difficult to control properly. Alton is looking for a burn that lasts about a minute, which is long enough to caramelize the surface sugars and to reduce the liquid, concentrating the bourbon flavor (which goes well with shrimp and grits). To achieve this he uses a medium heat to keep the liquid just at a light boil.

Once they are finished, Alton serves his shrimp atop the grits. In the old South this was a breakfast dish only, but Alton believes it works for any meal just by swapping the beverage.

Next, Alton descends a ladder to his “wine cellar” where he claps twice to turn on the lights. Here he has stored beer and wine, but they are sufficiently demanding to require their own show, so he makes his way past them to a rack on which rest several bottles of fortified wine. Fortified wines include brews such as sherry and Madeira. Bottlers make them by waiting until a standard wine has nearly completely fermented, and then adding sufficient distilled spirits to halt fermentation by killing the yeast. These spirits commonly have 20% alcohol by volume (abv) and some residual sweetness.

Alton's favorite is marsala, invented or popularized around 1770 by an English wine merchant named Woodhouse living in the Sicilian town named Marsala. Woodhouse realized this wine, spiked with a distilled grape spirit, could withstand shipment even in the dank holds of ships where more traditional wines would commonly spoil, because the extra ethanol acts as a preservative. (Behind Alton, the wine merchant slaps a “Property of Keith Richards” sticker on the barrel, while an arrangement of the Good Eats theme and Rolling Stones music plays.)

Marsala comes in various colors: oro (gold), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby red). It also comes in various levels of sweetness: secco (dry), semisecco and sweet. Alton chooses a sweet amber to make one of his favorite desserts, zabaglione. Bottle in hand, he climbs from his wine cellar, pausing to “clap off” the lights.

The origin of zabaglione, which amounts to a boozy egg foam, is unclear. It could be the Medici court in Florence, but Italians tend to point there whenever they don't know where a food originates (the same way Americans often cite Thomas Jefferson, who did not invent french fries! The recipe is based on earlier recipes for egg-thickened drinks called coddles, often prepared for the ill and infirm.

Alton starts by gathering egg yolks, sugar, marsala and salt. First he adds water to a sauce pan, over high heat to boil. Next he beats the egg yolks with the sugar in a heat resistant glass bowl and adds just a pinch of kosher salt, and then slowly decants the marsala into the mix, continuing to whisk until he produces a loose mixture somewhat like salad dressing. He puts the bowl over the boiling pot to form a kind of double boiler, and continues to whisk his mixture until it reaches 150° F, about fifteen minutes. At that point, it is ready to eat – quick and easy. Alton enjoys his mixed with raspberries and blueberries. Served warm, the rich aroma of the marsala slides right up the chimney (the nose) where we do most of our tasting!

Alton opens a cabinet from whose top icicles hang, symbolic of the cold. There he reveals that alcohol also has a very low freezing point: -114° C, or about -172° F. It can function like culinary antifreeze: stir crema into the zabaglione and chill for a few hours, then turn in an ice cream machine for a soft serve cone with a real kick. Alcohol also prevents the formation of ice crystals, so as little as a tablespoon of vodka added to sorbet or ice cream mix keeps it soft and smooth.

Ethanol has another property of use to cooks. The hydroxyl group can bind to water, while the other end (consisting of a carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms) can bind to fatty acids. This means it can extract flavor compounds both water and fat soluble, that water can't touch. This is why vanilla extract contains alcohol. It can also extract the essential oil from the skin glands of a popular citrus fruit.

Alton removes the zest from a quantity of lemons and puts this in a glass jar. He then adds vodka and shakes the mixture. (The lemons might be turned into lemonade; they won't last terribly long without skin). He lets the zest/vodka sit a week, after which the zest has given up all of its good flavors. He pours that mixture back into the vodka bottle using a hand strainer and a funnel. Next he builds a sauce using a saucepan over high heat and equal parts sugar and water: a simple syrup. When this is completely clear, he allows it to cool and then puts it into the same glass jar, adding the “lemonized” vodka to it. He chills that for four hours to produce a drink from Sorrento, Italy, called limoncello, the essence of lemon in beverage form. The luxurious beverage gains some of its silky mouth feel from sugar, and some from the properties of alcohol dissolved in water.

Used responsibly, alcohol is capable of unique feats from flashes in the pan to aromatic foams to delicious drinks. And even more – but that's another episode of Good Eats!