Your questions about cooking with a kick, answered.
“If a recipe calls for alcohol,” asked Grace R. of Sioux City, Iowa, population 82,531, “does that mean my husband and I can get drunk if we eat too much of the finished dish?”
Thank you, Grace, for raising a good question! One I am sure many of us have pondered as we flip through cookbooks and read recipes for braises, stews, and sauces with beer, wine, sherry, and the likes.
(As a reminder, readers can use the feedback form below any post to ask a cooking question. At Home Cook World, answering your questions is an indispensable part of our editorial calendar.)
When it comes to the question of whether or not you can get drunk from eating food cooked with alcohol, here’s our take on the matter:
In most cases, food prepared with alcohol doesn’t get you drunk. However, studies show that alcohol doesn’t completely dissipate even after hours of simmering. After cooking, anywhere between 5% and 40% of the alcohol can remain in your food.
This doesn’t apply to boozy, uncooked desserts. From tiramisu with ladyfingers soaked in brandy or rum to eggnog panna cotta, it doesn’t take that much to feel the effects of an alcohol-laden dessert.
Why We Cook With Alcohol
Ask any chef about the merits of cooking with alcohol, and they will gladly tell you that it has many uses in the restaurant kitchen—improving the smell and taste of our food in more ways than most of us think.
Alcohol brings out the flavor of our food by bonding with the fat and water molecules in it. In doing so, it carries the aromatic and flavorsome compounds from the ingredients directly to the scent receptors in our nose and the taste buds on our tongue.
That being said, should you be concerned about the alcohol content of your cooked dish after adding a 12 fl oz can of lager or a 3 fl oz glass of dry sherry exactly as the recipe said?
I turned to someone much more qualified to speak on the subject than myself to find out the answer.
“The short answer,” said Michelle Rauch, Registered Dietitian at The Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, population 28,353, “is probably not.”
Rauch, who can be found on LinkedIn, also runs Dietitians with a Mission (follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram). Dietitians with a Mission is a goodwill project she helped organize with a fellow RD to support frontline healthcare workers during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water (173.3°F compared to 212°F), many of us think that all the alcohol in a cooked dish evaporates during the cooking process.
“This is not the case,” Rauch added. “While cooking will always result in some loss of alcohol, the degree of loss is dependent on several factors, the cooking method, the cooking vessel, the cooking time, and the cooking temperature.”
She pointed me to a study published in the April 1992 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which concluded that the amount of alcohol contained in cooked foods could range from 4% to a whopping 85%.
I don’t know about you lot, but I’ll drink (or eat?!) to that!
Rauch also mentioned a USDA study that found that when alcohol is added to a dish that is either baked or cooked for 15 minutes, as much as 40% of the alcohol is retained. After an hour, 25% of the alcohol is still there, and after 2 ½ hours, 5% is still there. After 3 hours, there is probably little to a trace of alcohol left.
This is already telling you a few things.
First, the longer the simmering time specified in the recipe, the less alcohol will remain in the finished dish.
A wine stew slow-cooked for hours is likely to be less alcoholic than a quick sauce you just made by deglazing a hot pan with sherry by letting it boil down for a few minutes until the leftover bits and pieces of food have dissolved and the liquid thickens.
Second, it is not unreasonable to assume that adding whiskey or vodka, which usually contain about 40% to 50% alcohol, to a dish, will leave more alcohol in it than reaching for sherry (16% ABV), wine (11-18% ABV), or beer (5% ABV).
Third, if you shouldn’t consume alcohol for one reason or another, then you also shouldn’t cook with alcohol. You may not get tipsy eating coq au vin or drunken Irish stew, but there is a good chance that some of the alcohol in it will ultimately get into your blood.
Is Flambéing Any Different?
I always thought flambéing a dish would leave the least amount of alcohol. But, as it turned out, that isn’t necessarily the case:
In the case of dishes that are “flamed,” such as a cherries jubilee or a bananas foster, Rauch added, the dish is heated to the point where the alcohol becomes a vapor. “It is the vapor, not the liquid, which is ignited, not making a significant difference to the amount of alcohol remaining in the dish.”
Rauch referred to a study published in the June 2012 issue of the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, which found, as she phrased it, that “the changes that occurred during the flambé were related to the cooking process rather than the ignition and flaming.”