In A Nutshell
Wine and other types of alcohol are often added to different dishes as a flavor enhancer. Most people will claim that the alcoholic content of this food cooks off before the dish is finished. While in some cases that can be true, in most, it’s most definitely false. For example, a typical dish made with alcohol and then simmered for half an hour will still retain about 35 percent of its alcoholic content. A dish cooked using the flambe method can retain up to 80 percent of its alcoholic content.
The Whole Bushel
Wine, sherry, and even beer can all add a unique flavor to a wide variety of different dishes, but there can be a concern over serving something made with alcohol to a minor or to someone who’s had difficulties with alcohol in the past. Many cooks will say that the alcohol cooks off, but that’s not true at all in most cases.
According to studies done by the US Department of Agriculture, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University, a high percentage of alcohol can remain in a dish after cooking. There are a number of variables, such as how strong a beverage is used to flavor the food, how long it’s cooked for, and even what type of pan is used. While there are some dishes that are made with a low percentage of alcohol and are cooked long enough to remove almost all the alcohol that’s added, that’s in the minority of dishes.
Baking is consistently one of the worst ways to remove alcoholic content from a finished product. A dish that’s made with alcohol then baked for half an hour will still retain about 35 percent of its alcoholic content. Double the baking time, and you’ll still end up with brownies or a cake that keeps about 25 percent of its alcohol. Don’t stir the alcohol into the raw mixture all that well and cook it for a pretty standard 25 minutes and you’ll still have about 45 percent of the alcohol left.
That can be a dangerous number for someone who wants to stay away from alcohol all together; taking those whiskey brownies to a party thinking that they’ve baked to be alcohol-free can be a recipe for disaster.
So why do we think that, and why doesn’t the equation work?
Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water does, meaning that, in theory, the alcohol will burn out of a dish before water does. But when water and alcohol are combined, that means the boiling point is somewhere in between the boiling point of the alcohol and the water. As the dish simmers, the alcohol-to-water ratio is changing—and so is the boiling point of the mixture. As alcohol burns off, the boiling point increases.
Then, there’s the variable about how much fat is in the dish, too. The more fat there is, the more alcohol will be retained.
Using the flambe method of searing a dish very, very hot after adding alcohol? Even more will be left behind—up to 80 percent of the alcohol will be left behind when the flame applied is hot and fast.
Using a wide pan and simmering the dish for a long period of time is the best way to remove alcohol content. But even simmering something for two hours can leave behind about 10 percent of the alcohol. Even a beer needs to be boiled for half an hour to lower its alcohol content to the point where it’s legally non-alcoholic, and even after 30 minutes it can still have trace amounts of alcohol. And by that point, it’s better just to substitute.
Fortunately, there are substitutes that can be used to replace alcohol in many recipes that call for it. For example, use pomegranate syrup instead of grenadine, espresso instead of Kahlua, or pineapple juice instead of sherry.