Adding wine, liquor, or beer to a dish does more than just contribute the flavor of the spirit. The ethanol in those drinks has a general flavor-enhancing effect. It draws flavor molecules from the other ingredients and makes them more readily tasteable when eaten. Fat-soluble flavors, such as those from spices, can dissolve in alcohol, which enables them to integrate into a braise, soup, stew, or sauce. Alcohol also increases the volatility of a dish, which means that the food gives off more of its delicious aroma.
However, many people prefer not to consume any alcohol at all. If you add alcohol to a recipe, how much of it will evaporate during cooking?
Short answer: Not as much as you might hope.
What Makes Alcohol Evaporate?
Alcohol evaporates when it’s heated. So in theory, cooking will make it evaporate away. And, because the boiling point of ethanol (173 degrees) is lower than that of water (212 degrees), it seems like you should be able to cook off all the alcohol in a dish without cooking off all of its water.
In practice, it doesn’t work that way. When alcohol and water are combined, they dissolve into each other, forming a solution whose boiling point is neither 173° nor 212°, but variable, depending on the ratio of the ingredients.
The more you cook off alcohol from a dish, the lower the ratio of alcohol to water in the dish becomes, which means the alcohol cooks off more and more slowly. Finally, when the alcohol level reaches about 5 percent, it plateaus, and won't get any lower.
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During cooking, alcohol also gets absorbed into the solid component of the food—for instance, into the rice in a risotto or the hunks of beef in a stew—and will not readily come out again during cooking. And the nature of the food makes a difference, because some ingredients—for instance, gelatin, which increases the viscosity of the dish—make it harder for alcohol to evaporate.
How Much Alcohol Actually Remains in Food?
A few scientific studies have measured the amount of alcohol that remains after cooking in various dishes. The results range quite a bit:
- A stew containing wine, simmered at 185 degrees for 10 minutes: As much as 60 percent of the initial alcohol remained.
- A stew containing wine, simmered at 185 degrees for 2½ hours: About 6 percent of the initial alcohol remained.
- Cherries Jubilee, flambéed for a minute: 75 percent of the alcohol remained.
- A boozy pie left in the refrigerator overnight: 85 percent of the alcohol remained.
Will My Food Get Me Drunk?
No. It’s important to remember that the amount of alcohol a typical recipe starts with is fairly small. In our red wine risotto recipe, one cup of wine is added to a dish that serves 6 to 8 people. One serving thus contains 1⅓ ounces of wine, which equates to about 1/20 of an ounce of ethanol. That’s the same amount of ethanol you’d consume in a few glasses of fruit juice (yes, fruit juice naturally contains alcohol). And cooking the risotto will reduce that amount.
It’s not zero alcohol! But it is not a lot.
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How Can I Make Sure My Food Is Alcohol-Free?
If you need to ensure that there won’t be any alcohol in the finished dish, the only solution is to add no alcohol during cooking. Fortunately, the world of alcohol-free wines, beers, and spirits is thriving, and cooking with those will add at least a little of the desired flavor. Many of those products do contain about half a percent of alcohol, though—comparable to fruit juice—so make sure the label explicitly promises 0.0 percent. (Why do they contain alcohol? Because, as discussed above, it’s very hard to separate alcohol and water, even with industrial technology.)