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The 4 Best Substitutes for Tequila in Cooking

This article will highlight the best substitutes for cooking with tequila and reveal the answers to some commonly asked questions about the culinary uses of this alcoholic beverage. This article will also feature expert advice from professional chef Maria Garza of The Cultural Kitchen. Let’s get started!

The best substitute for tequila in cooking is mezcal. Mezcal refers to any distilled spirit made from an agave plant — including tequila. As such, mezcal is the closest substitute for tequila. Other suitable alternatives to tequila in cooking include vodka, gin, and lime juice. 

1. Mezcal

Mexican woman serving mezcal or tequila neat in artisan glass

Just like tequila, mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage also made from the agave plant. In fact, “mezcal” is the name given to the range of spirits that are made from agave, which means that, strictly speaking, tequila is a type of mezcal. 

The agave plant is a type of succulent that is native to parts of North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. This hardy plant can grow anywhere between 8 feet (2.4 meters) to a remarkable 30 feet (9 meters) in height. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave, a species of agave.

As a result, mezcal is a great substitute for tequila because it is harvested and fermented the same way and has a very similar flavor profile. In fact, mezcal is considered one of the closest substitutes for tequila. 

2. Other Clear Alcohols 

You can also use other types of clear alcohol, like vodka or gin, in place of tequila. The taste of your final dish will vary depending on which alcohol you use, but overall, these distilled spirits mimic the acidity and sweetness of tequila when used in cooking.

Related 15 Best Substitutes For Alcoholic Beverages in Recipes.

3. Lime Juice

If you’re looking for a non-alcoholic substitute for tequila, a suitable alternative would be lime juice, which also mimics the acidity of tequila. 

You can either juice your own limes or buy a bottle of lime juice at your local grocery store. Fresh lime juice will give a brighter, more intense flavor to your recipe than bottled lime juice would, but both do the trick well.

4. Agave Nectar 

A cup of agave nectar

Agave nectar is another alcohol-free alternative to tequila. Unlike most plants that store nectar in their flowers, agave nectar is found in the leaves of the agave plant. Once extracted, it’s packaged and sold as a syrup. Agave syrup is similar to honey, both in its appearance and use. It’s a popular alternative to sugar and is used as a natural sweetener.

Depending on how it’s processed, agave syrup varies in color, taste, and strength, but it is generally sweeter than honey and sugar. As a result, agave syrup adds a sweet flavor to a dish when used as a substitute for tequila.

What’s the Closest Thing to Tequila?

The closest thing to tequila is mezcal. Mezcal refers to any distilled spirit made from the agave plant. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave, making it a type of mezcal. The harvesting, fermentation, and overall methods of processing are generally similar for all types of mezcal.

Mexican law states that tequila is specific to the country that it is made in; anything made outside of a few particular cities in Mexico cannot legally be considered tequila — instead, it is mezcal. However, since mezcal is made from any type of agave plant, it has the most similar taste to tequila.

Related 10 Best Non-Alcoholic Substitutes for Brandy in Cooking.

What Flavor Does Tequila Add to Food?

Tequila blanco (white or silver tequila) adds a sweet flavor to food, while tequila reposado and añejo — which are aged in oak barrels as part of their preparation — carry hints of wood. Depending on the type of tequila, the flavor that this distilled beverage adds to food can vary widely. 

According to Maria Garza, head chef of the culinary school The Cultural Kitchen, tequila adds “complex and exotic flavors” when used in cooking. Tequila añejo (aged tequila) tastes different from tequila blanco — which is bottled immediately after distillation — and once the alcohol is cooked away in sauces or marinades, only the flavor of the spirit and its notes remain. 

Tequila añejo is aged in oak barrels for up to three years before bottling. Naturally, the tequila absorbs some notes of oak from the barrels and releases those flavors during the cooking process. That’s why it’s important to note whether the tequila you’re using is blanco, 

reposado (aged for up to a year), or añejo (aged between one and three years) — they all taste differently!

What Does Tequila Do in Cooking?

When used in cooking, tequila blanco (white or silver tequila) brings a spicy, sweet flavor to food, while rested tequila (tequila reposado) and aged tequila (tequila añejo) add hints of wood and sweet oak. Tequila adds a variety of flavors when used in cooking, depending on which tequila is used. 

This might seem hard to believe, especially when you’ve tried tequilas that taste harsh or strong on the palate. However, remember that taking a shot of tequila and using it in a recipe render incredibly different flavors, not to mention the variety of tastes that different types of tequila can give to a dish.

What Tequila Should Be Used for Cooking?

Someone pouring tequila into a skillet

You can use blanco (white or silver), reposado (rested), or añejo (aged) tequila for various cooking purposes, depending on what flavor you’re trying to achieve. Tequila blanco can add a strong, spicy flavor to a dish, while reposados and añejos bring hints of wood. 

Let’s discuss the culinary uses of each type of tequila in more detail.

Tequila Blanco

Tequila blanco (also known as white or silver tequila) is bottled immediately after distillation. Sometimes, it may be held in steel tanks for no more than two months to allow certain compounds to rest after the entire process, but generally, it is bottled fairly quickly.

As a result, tequila blanco maintains younger hints of natural blue agave. This kind of tequila is best used in cocktails because it blends well with the often sweet, fruity flavors of common alcoholic beverages. However, it can also be used in certain dishes. 

Chef Garza suggests Camarones al Tequila, a delicious shrimp recipe that incorporates shrimp and tequila (or any suitable substitute) for a tasty seafood dish. Serve with pasta or rice as an accompaniment.

Tequila Reposado

This kind of tequila is rested in oak barrels for between 2 and 12 months, and in the process, it takes on some notes of oak. Tequila reposado darkens during the resting process and eventually creates a beverage that has flavors of caramel, honey, chocolate, chili, vanilla, and even cinnamon. 

Reposados are best used in most seafood dishes. For example, salmon gravlax is a delicious dish that uses rested tequila in its curing and flavoring.

Tequila Añejo

Tequila añejo is aged in oak barrels for longer than a year, which is what makes it aged versus rested. Specifically, añejo is aged for up to three years. Because of its smooth flavor, you can also sip at this aged tequila instead of shooting it. 

When used in cooking, tequila añejo brings woody flavors, making it suitable for drizzling on grilled, rare steaks and roasted vegetables. It pairs well with dark chocolate, too.

Related The 7 Best Similar Substitutes for Sherry in Soup.

What Can You Make With Tequila and Tequila Substitutes?

Tequila — or any of its alternatives listed above — can add a flavorful kick to a variety of dishes. 

Certain meals call for tequila or tequila substitutes in their recipes. Ceviche, which is a raw fish dish from Peru, is paired excellently with tequila. Other smoky dishes, like spicy grilled shrimp or marinated steak, can use tequila or a suitable substitute to add additional flavor. 

Light meats work well with tequila-infused sauces and marinades — pork and grilled chicken are favorites! For example, you could make a mouthwatering tequila lime pork tenderloin or grilled salmon with habanero-lime butter. From empanadas to tuna tostadas, tequila adds an entirely new taste to every recipe — the options are endless! 

You can also use tequila substitutes to make tequila-based cocktails like margaritas and palomas.

Does Tequila Tenderize Meat?

Tequila can tenderize meat. It does this by breaking down the proteins in the meat during marinating and cooking, giving the meat a juicy, tender texture. However, most professional chefs prefer not to use tequila to tenderize meat, as this is more expensive than pounding the meat.

Pounding the meat with a meat tenderizer or mallet is the best way to tenderize it. According to Chef Garza, liquor — including tequila — is better used for flavor than for tenderizing.  

What Food Mixes Well With Tequila?

Fish dishes and grilled foods mix well with tequila. Foods with citrusy flavors are also best paired with tequila, as the sweetness of the tequila complements the sharp citrus taste. Anything with fresh herbs also pairs well with tequila. Vodka or lime juice can substitute for tequila in recipes.

Often, tequila is paired with dishes that are authentic to South America, which is only fitting considering the beverage originates from the Latin American community. These dishes often incorporate lots of citrus and acidic flavors, which are suitably complemented by tequila.

For more, don’t miss The 17 Best Mixers for Tequila.