Cooking without wine or beer

Instead of using red wine, you can sub in tart cherry juice to make this divine braised oxtail.
Dec. 23, 2019
Cooking without wine or beer is easy with some simple tricks. Try making delicious braised oxtail with tart cherry juice instead of red wine.
Cooking without wine or beer is easy with some simple tricks. Try making delicious braised oxtail with tart cherry juice instead of red wine. Photo: Getty Images.

What if you don’t drink alcoholic beverages for whatever reason, and the ingredient list on the recipe for coq au vin includes 1/4 cup brandy and 1/2 bottle of red wine? Or in the risotto recipe, it says, “Toss in one glassful of dry white wine.”? Or, to make the batter for an “authentic” fish and chips, will you require a bottle of beer?

Many people don’t drink any alcohol for reasons of health, religion, or culture or because they don’t want to feed the coq au vin sauce to the baby.

Just as I used to find many ingredients in non-Western cooking not only out of my league but also out of my pantry, I suspect that many cooks new to this country find it difficult to use wine, beer, spirits or liqueurs to make many a Western preparation.

So, sadly, they just avoid cooking that way.

And there is the matter of caution. I know vegans or vegetarians who blanch — to use a cooking term in a second meaning — if they discover that a spoon or spatula that prepared their food merely touched a bit of beef. I respect their blanchedness.

It’s a common assumption that the heat of cooking rids a dish of any alcohol introduced into it. That’s only partially true.

According to the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, 75% of the original alcohol by volume of the liquid used, for instance, will remain in a flambéed dessert; 25% in a dish that has been simmered or braised for one hour; and five percent in the same dish after two and a half hours. (Those percentages for braising are guaranteed if the pot has been covered while cooking, the norm.)

Those numbers won’t work for a lot of folk.

I’ve been preparing many recipes for months now, substituting completely alcohol-free liquids for the same quantities of beer or wine, both red and white. (I don’t cook much with spirits or liqueurs, so I haven’t, for example, had to pull a shot of espresso to sub out for “2 teaspoons Kahlua.”)

Except for a wee worry, once in a while, to adjust a recipe allowing for higher levels of sweetness introduced by the liquids that I’ve used, the substitutions have worked very well indeed. I counter the added sugar, for taste mostly, with a small amount of acidity (a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of rice vinegar).

It helped me to think about what role any wine or beer played in an original recipe. It added flavor, of course, but also the very important crispness of fruity acidity or carbonation. So, I sought out fruit juices or other beverages that mimed those same qualities.

You will find online many charts about non-alcoholic liquid substitutes in cooking. I certainly haven’t tried them all, but I’ll tell you what has worked well for my cooking after using many different sorts of juices or liquids.

Red wine: Cup for cup, I use R. W. Knudsen’s “Just Tart Cherry” juice. It’s a splendid proxy for red wines and no person at my table for whom I’ve cooked a boeuf bourguignon or oxtail stew could guess that I didn’t use red wine.

White wine: In equal measure, I’ve had great luck with “light” (lower sugar level) apple juice—for example, Mott’s “For Tots” brand—or, in a pinch, regular apple juice. It’s pretty interesting how cold apple juice smells just like a Mosel riesling—or is it the other way around?

Beer: And get this: add a teaspoon of malted milk powder to sparkling apple juice or low-sugar-level ginger ale and you’ll swear you’re in beer country. Ergo, “beer” batter success, including the bubbles.

Today’s recipe is from my mom, who in turn took it by hand from chef Claude Peyrot, proprietor of the restaurant Le Vivarois in Paris. She attended a cooking class of his while there in the 1980s.

The original recipe calls for braising the meat in a red Burgundy, Gevrey-Chambertin.

Braised Oxtail

Adapted from “Queue de Boeuf,” Claude Peyrot, Le Vivarois, Paris
Serves 4


  • 8-10 pieces of oxtail
  • Clarified butter or ghee for browning
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 bouquet garni (sprigs of parsley and thyme and 1 bay leaf, tied with kitchen twine)
  • 1/2 cup veal or rich chicken stock
  • R. W. Knudsen “Just Tart Cherry” bottled juice
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Brown the pieces of oxtail in the clarified butter or ghee. Set aside. In the same pan, lightly brown the cut-up vegetables, including the garlic, adding a slight amount of butter if necessary. Return the oxtail to the pan, in a single layer if possible, and add the bouquet garni. Pour in the veal or chicken stock and the cherry juice to barely cover the meat.

Cover the pan and braise in a 300-degree oven for 3 and 1/2 hours, turning the meat over once or until the meat is very tender and beginning to fall off the bone. To serve, remove the meat to a warmed platter and strain the pan juices. Reduce the juices by half and bind it by whisking in the 4 tablespoons of butter. Pour the sauce over the oxtail pieces to finish.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected].

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.