Does Alcohol Really Burn Off When Cooked?

By Brian Lemay No comments


How much alcohol is left in your food after
you cook with it? Short answer: Almost all of it, or almost none of it, depending on
how you cook it. Let us to the science building, and consult with my colleague Dr. Garland
Crawford, chemistry professor at Mercer University. “According to the literature, depending
on what you’re looking at and some of your technique you’re using, what we do know
is there’s always going to be some amount of residual alcohol left.” This stands in contrast with what many of
the world’s great chefs erroneously believe, including my beloved Marco Pierre White: “We’ve put the second batch of Sauternes,
brought it up to the boil.” “You want no reduction of the second Sauternes?” “No, just brought to the boil. Just to burn
off the alcohol.” Yes, alcohol boils off at a little lower temperature
than water. But that doesn’t mean it boils off instantaneously. I mean, think about it.
When you bring a pot of water to a boil, does water suddenly just go “poof” and vanish? Nah, evaporating alcohol takes time and heat,
and it’s mostly gonna be a function of volume. By how much volume do you reduce that alcohol?
If you only reduce a little bit, there’s gonna be a lot of alcohol left in the finished
product, says science. In a 1992 study, researchers cooked a bunch
of hilariously old-fashioned recipes from the “Pillsbury Kitchen’s Cookbook,” 1979.
Found it on eBay. So here, they made Cherries Jubilee. A tablespoon
of cornstarch mixed with a 16-ounce can of cherries. A quarter cup of brandy when in,
and then they flambéed it. “Beautiful.” Total cooking time of the booze was 48 seconds.
And how much of the alcohol was left at the end? 77 to 78 percent! “And the alcohol burns off so quickly.” Yeah, not that quick, Gordon. But it does
burn off a lot faster than water. “It reduces by what we call a power function,
which means there’s an exponential piece to it. So it actually is a multiplying effect,
as you reduce it by a greater volume.” That is why the same researchers had a very
different experience when they cooked a “Pot Roast Milano” with one cup of nice Burgundy
in it. So ‘70s. Look, it says to serve it with spaghetti! They simmered that pot roast
for 2 and a half hours, and how much alcohol from the wine was left at the end? Just 4
to 6 percent. So what does this mean for you? Are you gonna
get buzzed off your food? “Chances are probably pretty small. As it
turns out, even with the parentages of alcohol that are in many of the cooked-down solutions,
you’d have to take in a lot of that in order to have an effect.” For example, even those super-boozy Cherries
Jubilee only had 2 grams of alcohol per serving in the finished product. One beer has like
14 grams. 2 grams isn’t gonna do anything to you. “Your body is able to metabolize alcohol
at a pretty steady rate. We predict about 10 grams an hour or so.” And let’s consider food that’s been cooked
a lot longer. Garland did the math on that Pot Roast Milano and found that… “In order to get the same effect as a beer,
we’d need about 25 pounds of pot roast to have that same effect.” That’s a lotta pot roast. But let’s say you’re a person who, for
whatever religious or moral reason, fully abstains from alcohol. Should you also abstain
from a long-simmered sauce like my bolognese with white wine it? Even though the alcohol
content is probably down to almost nothing by the end? If you don’t want to consume a single ethyl
alcohol molecule, then yeah, you shouldn’t eat my sauce. But, I’ve got even more bad
news for you, because you’re probably consuming similarly small quantities of alcohol all
the time. Why? Because alcohol is in bread. Anything fermented. Yeast make booze, it’s
what they do. In 1926, two chemists at Cornell College in
Iowa, quote, “collected 12 samples of ordinary bread from bakeries and housewives’ ovens,
and after chemical analysis found that the alcohol content in this prosaic food varied
from .04 to 1.9 percent.” That means that some of that bread was technically
in violation of the prohibition law that was in effect in the United States at the time. Here’s some more recent research. In 1998, scientists at the University of Washington
analyzed the alcohol content of a bunch of store-bought baked goods, like Wonder Bread
and Twinkies. Yes, Twinkies have alcohol in them. These scientists were trying to figure
out if a person could blow a false-positive on a breathalyzer test if they had a mouthful
of Twinkie, which is a pretty fun scenario to imagine. “Hey, my taxes pay your salary!” Look back over here at Garland’s math. That
pot roast that had the wine in it? It has ONE THIRD of the alcohol of Wonder Bread.
You would get drunk from Wonder Bread three times faster! But that would never happen of course, because
you’d throw up before you ate enough pot roast or Wonder Bread. According to my own calculations, you have
to eat about 1,400 Twinkies to equal one beer. “That’s a big Twinkie.” Now look, I’m no theologian, I’m not gonna
try to connect all the moral dots for you, but here’s something that I would think
about if I was a person whose religion told me to abstain from alcohol. I might ask myself,
what’s the reason behind that? Is it because the ethyl alcohol molecule is just inherently
bad? Or is it because my religion doesn’t want me to get intoxicated? Because when I
get intoxicated, I become disinhibited, and therefore less likely to follow all of the
other moral tenants of my religion! That’s what I might think about, but as
always, you do you, friend. You know, maybe you just don’t want to buy wine because
you don’t want to support that industry, or you don’t want to be tempted by the bottle
as it stares at you from the cupboard. Me, I’ll continue to put cheap Pino Grigio
in just about everything I cook. What’s that? You want me to put you on Lucky
Charms?

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