A Bartender Shares the Best Ingredients for Replacing Wine, Beer, and Booze in Any Recipe (2024)

A Bartender Shares the Best Ingredients for Replacing Wine, Beer, and Booze in Any Recipe (1)Share on Pinterest

We all know food and booze go hand-in-hand quite readily: There’s aperitif spritzes before a meal, red wine with dinner, maybe a snifter of brandy or cognac with (or for) dessert. Many of us who cook also know alcohol can play an enthusiastic role in food as well: We make beer bread or wine-braised meats, add sherry to sautéed vegetables, or bake amaretto cookies.

But what if you don’t want to work alcohol into a dish that calls for it?

Alcohol is used in cooking and baking for many reasons: Like salt, it brings out the flavor of foods and can help combine them because it bonds with both fats and water. In many ways, alcohol acts the part of acid in Samin Nosrat’s award-winning cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. Because of its acidity, booze is also a simple and flavorful way to marinate or tenderize meats.

Yet, while there are about a hundred reasons to add booze to food, there are at least as many to keep alcohol out of the kitchen. While a good portion of alcohol is burned off during cooking, there are still trace amounts left behind, which can make it tricky for anyone sensitive to or avoiding alcohol to steer clear.

There are, however, still plenty of ways to nail that coq a vin, chicken marsala, or beer bread without a trip to the liquor store.

Alcohol gets used in the kitchen for three main reasons:

There’s no alcohol-free substitute for lighting that baked Alaska or creme brulee on fire: Without alcohol (and a fairly high percentage of alcohol, you need something at or over 100 proof to produce a steady flame), there is nothing ignite.

But what if you’re not lighting your food on fire?

These are the best rules of thumb for booze substitutions:

  • If you’re using booze to tenderize or marinate meat, replace the alcohol with soda, sparkling juice, acidic fruit juice, or vinegar.
  • For alcohol-free flavor substitutions, go with what’s going to taste the most like the alcohol you’re leaving out.
  • When it comes to measurements: In a hefty majority of recipes calling for alcohol, we’re talking in dashes, splashes, and drops, and the same can be applied to your booze-free substitute.
  • In recipes where exact measurements are required — like baking and pasta sauces — you can make direct 1:1 swaps.

So, those are the broad rules. Now, let’s talk specifics:

Red wine is the perfect boozy addition to your cooking supplies: It’s dry, tart, slightly acidic, and adds a beautiful pop of color. Used to complement meat dishes, sauces, and sautéed vegetables, red wine can be added to nearly any dish to augment flavors and add complexity.

Here’s what you can use instead:

Beef broth

Recipes calling for red wine as a braising liquid or to be added to sautéed vegetables can be made with beef broth instead of vino. In these types of dishes the wine is used to augment flavors, and the salty-yet-dry broth achieves the same effect.

Red grape juice

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get that signature deep red color to really make a dish stand out. Truth be told, red grape juice is as similar in flavor to red wine as you can get without fermentation.

If wine is being used as a marinade, combine equal parts grape juice and vinegar to increase the acid content.

Sherry’s dry-but-sweet, nutty flavor adds depth to any dish, from meats to vegan gravy, making it a versatile, all-in-one kitchen addition. (It’s also the secret ingredient to the onions in French onion soup.)

Here’s what you can use instead:

Apple juice

Apple juice has just enough sugar to impart sherry’s touch of sweetness without going overboard.

Vanilla extract

A teaspoon of vanilla extract can also be used in place of a tablespoon of sherry.

I repeat: a teaspoon of vanilla extract can be used to replace a tablespoon of sherry.

Vanilla extract is much more concentrated than sherry. In small quantities, that nuttiness comes through. Be careful, though: Many flavored extracts contain alcohol, so be sure you’ve got a booze-free variety.

3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon

This means you need 1/3 the amount of vanilla extract to replace 1 tablespoon of sherry.

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Vodka, the most flavorless alcohol, is most often used as a binding agent or emulsifier: It’s not about what it tastes like, it’s about the chemistry required to pull diverse elements — like oil and water — together for texture and appearance.

Here’s what you can use instead:


Small quantities of vodka — splashes, dashes, teaspoons, or tablespoons — can be replaced with water.

In a pie crust, for example, using half vodka and half water can add an extra tender flexibility, but the crust will still taste (and almost feel) the same without the alcohol.

White grape juice and lime

As a bartender, I have some reservations about this often recommended combination: Vodka is used — behind the bar and in the kitchen — specifically for its flavor profile, or rather, the lack thereof: It adds volume or dryness (that, hmm, there’s definitely booze in here mouthfeel) and acts as a binding agent that brings other flavors together.

While the acidity of lime balances the sweetness of white grape juice, this isn’t going to be a neutral flavor combination. Though it’s certainly worth a shot in small quantities.

Know that there are no good nonalcoholic substitutes for larger amounts of vodka.

But penne alla vodka, for instance, uses vodka to bind the acidic tomato juice with cream, olive oil, and water and calls for a cup of vodka, or just shy of three martinis worth of booze. At that volume, using water as a substitute will leave you with a runny, poorly blended sauce instead of the creamy pink emulsion you’re after.

You can use white grape juice with some extra sugar to recreate the classic texture of this sauce, but I’d expect to notice the difference in flavor. Otherwise, the best bet for a booze-free take on this classic is to simply omit the vodka.

Cooking with white wine imparts the same acid-based benefits as red without the distinct flavor or color of red grapes. Often used to balance dairy-heavy dishes or retain moisture in quick(er)-cooking main dishes like chicken or fish, white wine provides a subtle undertone of flavor.

Here’s what you can use instead:

Chicken broth

Like beef broth can be used in lieu of red wine, the “white meat” broth is a good sub for white wine for sauces or braising. Classic dishes like coq a vin and linguine with clam sauce will be largely unaffected with a swap for chicken broth.

Apple juice

White wine can also be found fairly readily in baked desserts. The light, floral, and honey-like notes of riesling, sauvignon blanc, grüner veltliner, or muscat add sugar to cakes and cookies. The same volume of apple juice will too.

Beer is one of the most versatile alcoholic beverages to use in the kitchen, largely because there are just so many kinds: Light beer, dark beer, bitter beer, wheat beer, the list goes on, and each style will impart a different flavor.

Beer is also unique from most other alcohols in that the finished, potable product still contains active yeast (like kombucha), making beer uniquely positioned to do double-duty when it comes to baking.

Here’s what you can use instead:

Nonalcoholic beer

Nonalcoholic beer is the easiest substitution for beer in any recipe. Today, there is a range of styles, from standard lagers to more complex ales and sours to choose from.

Chicken broth

For sauces and braising, chicken broth is a quick and easy substitute for recipes calling for light beer (lager, wheat beer, or ales).

Mushroom stock

For recipes calling for dark beers (porter, stout) mushroom stock will work in place of Guinness or other dark beers.

Unless you’re baking: A dark, nonalcoholic variety should be used instead of dark beer in baked goods like stout cake and beer bread.

co*ke or Pepsi

A final caveat on beer substitutions: For marinating meat, a full-sugar soda like co*ke or Pepsi is the best substitution. Both sodas have a higher acid content than stock or broth and will help break meat down into the tender texture you’re after.

Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based bartender and freelance writer with words in EATER, Bustle, MELMagazine, Catapult magazine, Boston’s alt-weekly, DigBoston, and elsewhere.

A Bartender Shares the Best Ingredients for Replacing Wine, Beer, and Booze in Any Recipe (2024)
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