Harold McGee, food scientist and celebrated author of On Food & Cooking, offers his insights on Pernod and why cooking with this distinctive spirit differs from other liquors and wines.1. Pernod and Other Anise-flavored Spirits
Pernod belongs to the family of spirits whose flavor is dominated by the aroma of anise. Other members of the family include anisette, Greek ouzo, Turkish raki, and pastis, which is flavored with licorice as well as anise.
Anise spirits differ widely in their alcoholic strength and sweetness. Pernod is 40% alcohol, Greek ouzo 45%, and U.S. anisette 30%. Pernod contains 1.8 Tb sugar per cup (22 grams per 240 ml), and anisette as much as 6 Tb (70 grams).
“Differences in alcohol content don’t have major consequences for the cook,” says McGee. However, the high sugar content of anisette makes it very sweet and syrupy. “Pernod is more versatile than anisette, because it can flavor vegetable, fish, and meat dishes without making them sweet,” he adds. Pernod also gives the cook greater control over the flavor balance of mixed drinks and desserts.2. Anise Flavor: Anethole
The characteristic aroma of anise-flavored spirits comes from a chemical compound called anethole. Several kinds of plants—anise, star anise, and fennel—produce and store anethole in their green tissues and seeds, where it acts as a repellant to insect predators. “However, anethole produces the opposite reaction in humans – it attracts us and encourages us to eat. We cultivate anise-flavored plants in order to enjoy their anethole, and Pernod is made by extracting that and the flavors of several other different herbs and spices,” explains McGee.
Anethole belongs to a family of chemicals called phenolic compounds, which also includes the molecules that provide the characteristic aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, clove, and thyme. All phenolic compounds dissolve more easily in oils and in alcohol than in water, and Pernod’s high alcohol content holds anethole in solution. McGee explains, “As a cooking ingredient, Pernod resembles vanilla extract: it’s a convenient form of pre-dissolved flavor that can be infused instantly and evenly throughout a dish.”3. Anethole as an Ingredients
Why do we find certain flavors and flavor combinations especially pleasing? This is still a scientific mystery. Whatever the explanation might be, anise is a much-loved flavor. “The warm, sweet aroma of anise can play the leading role in a drink or a dish, as it does in Pernod aperitifs or a fennel gratin,” states McGee. “It also excels in a supporting role, which is why cooks call on Pernod to provide a background richness for many other foods, from vegetables to fish and fruits.”
Another promising role for Pernod is suggested by the traditional Chinese method of cooking meats in a mixture of soy sauce, onions, and star anise. “Scientists have found that the anethole from star anise reacts with the onion sulfur compounds to form new aromatics, and these intensify the meaty quality of the dish. Slowly cooking onions with Pernod may well produce similar aromatics, which enhances the savory flavors of both meat and meatless dishes.”4. Alcohol as an Ingredient
In addition to bringing the distinctive flavor of anise to a dish, Pernod also brings alcohol. The concentrated alcohol of undiluted spirits has a harsh taste, a quality that is intensified in warm or hot foods. Too much alcohol in a sauce overpowers the other ingredients and makes it harder for us to sense and enjoy them. At the same time, alcohol is a cooking asset that forms new flavors, especially during long, slow cooking. “The addition of Pernod or other alcohols to a dish enhances flavor by encouraging the escape of aromas into the air and the nose,” explains McGee. Cooks typically and historically use Pernod in seafood dishes, but it is also an enticing addition to all types of meats, vegetables, soups, sorbets, and desserts.5. Cooking with Pernod
Pernod is a delicate ingredient. Two cooking techniques commonly applied to wines and spirits turn out to be unsuitable for anethole and for Pernod, McGee explains:
- “Cooks often boil wines and spirits down to remove their alcohol and concentrate their flavor. But because anethole is a volatile substance like alcohol and has more affinity for alcohol than water, boiling Pernod drives off its anethole along with its alcohol. The remaining liquid ends up less flavorful, not more.”
- “Cooks also like to ignite the alcohol-rich fumes of hot spirits in a showy flambé. Unfortunately, anethole is a fragile molecule. When Pernod is ignited, the high heat of the flame breaks anethole apart into other, less pleasantly aromatic molecules. The anise flavor is damaged.”
Overall, Pernod is best treated gently. Add it toward the end of the cooking, or heat it slowly with other ingredients, so that they have time to absorb the anethole.