The holiday gathering featured family favorites with a twist. My friend infused each recipe with the unique profiles of booze: beer cornbread, beef with wine sauce, carrots in bourbon sauce, salad greens tossed with a champagne vinaigrette and amaretto apple crisp. However, this feast worried one of the guests. I overheard a young man whisper apologetically to the hostess that he was headed out because he did not drink. She responded that there was nothing to worry about — during cooking the alcohol burns off. Luckily, he opted to leave.
It is true that some of the alcohol evaporates, or burns off, during the cooking process. “Some” being the operative word. Exactly how much depends on many factors. To learn more, a group of researchers, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, marinated, flamed, baked and simmered a variety of foods with different sources of alcohol. The verdict: After cooking, the amount of alcohol remaining ranged from 4 percent to 95 percent.
Many factors impact the final alcohol content of homemade recipes, such as how long a dish is cooked at the boiling point of alcohol (173 degrees Fahrenheit). The USDA provides the following estimates — dishes cooked at 173 degrees for:
- 15 minutes will retain 40 percent of its alcohol content.
- 30 minutes will retain 35 percent.
- 1 hour will retain 25 percent.
- 2 hours will retain 10 percent.
- 2 ½ hours will retain 5 percent.
But there’s more.
The other ingredients in the recipe influence the amount of alcohol retained. For example, a bread crumb topping on scallops cooked in wine sauce can prevent some of the alcohol from evaporating, increasing the amount of alcohol in the final dish.
The size of the pan also comes into play. More alcohol remains in recipes made in smaller pans. The reason is that a larger pot has more surface area, which lets more of the alcohol evaporate. In addition, recipes that require you to stir during the cooking process tend to have lower amounts of alcohol because this action also promotes evaporation.
- Beer cheese sauce, bourbon caramel and other sauces brought to a boil and then removed from the heat typically retain about 85 percent of the alcohol.
- Steak Diane, cherries jubilee and other recipes that flame the alcohol may still have 75 percent of the alcohol.
- Marinades that are not cooked can maintain as much as 70 percent of the added alcohol.
- Meats and baked goods that are cooked for 25 minutes without being stirred retain 45 percent of alcohol.
- Stews and other dishes that simmer for two and one-half hours tend to have the lowest amounts, but they retain about 5 percent of the alcohol.
The takeaway: For individuals in recovery, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those who choose not to drink for religious, health or other reasons, all of the alcohol does not burn off. They may need to opt out of holiday recipes that include alcohol as an ingredient. And for those of us toasting in the holiday, some sauces may be contributing more to our blood alcohol levels than we realize.
Barbara Gordon is a registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Idaho State University.