Alcohol Doesn’t Really “Cook Out” of Food in Most Cases

Daven Hiskey 19

Today I found out alcohol does not “cook out” of food in most cases.  The myth that alcohol does all cook out stems from the fact that alcohol has a much lower boiling point temperature (173° F / 78.5° C) than water (212° F / 100° C).  Thus, if the temperature is above 78.5° C, then the alcohol should boil off, right?

A group of researchers in 1992 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University decided to find out.  In the end, what they discovered was that the “alcohol cooks out” assumption didn’t turn out to be correct for the vast majority of ways most people prepare food with alcohol.  In their study, they used a variety of recipes with various sources of alcohol and a variety of preparation types, including simmering, baking, flaming, refrigerating over night, etc.  What they found was that the amount of alcohol remaining after cooking was in the range of 4%-85%.  The variations weren’t just dependant on how long you kept the temperature above alcohol’s boiling point either.  They also found that the other ingredients made a difference in the alcohol retention rate.  The size of the cooking vessel also greatly affected the alcohol retention rates.  The smaller the vessel, the more alcohol will be retained given some set cooking time, due to the smaller surface area for evaporation.

In terms of preparation methods and times, their results were as follows (all of these assume the temperature is above 173° F, which is the boiling point of alcohol; also, the size of dish and contents of the food mixture affect the results, so this is just a general guideline):

  • The highest rates of retention were with alcohol added to boiling liquid and then shortly after removed from heat.  In this case, the alcohol retention rate was around 85%.
  • The second highest alcohol retention rate came when using the flaming method of cooking, which resulted in around a 75% retention level.
  • When using no heat and storing overnight, about 70% of the alcohol was retained.
  • When baked for 25 minutes with the mixture not being stirred, the retention rate was 45%.
  • When baked/simmered where the mixture is stirred, produced the following results:
    • 15 minutes 40%
    • 30 minutes 35%
    • 1 hour 25%
    • 1.5 hours 20%
    • 2 hours 10%
    • 2.5 hours 5%

Now, you might think from this that if you cooked the thing long enough, eventually the alcohol will all get cooked out.  From a practical standpoint, this is more or less true.  But if you are ever cooking for or are a recovering alcoholic, you’ll want to know, it’s not really true.  There will always be some alcohol remaining as long as there is still any kind of moisture in whatever you are cooking.   The reason behind this is that the alcohol binds with water and forms an azeotrope (mixture of two or more compounds where the ratio cannot be changed by simple distillation).  So as you boil the azeotrope, the ratio of alcohol in the compound stays the same throughout the boiling process.   So you will always retain some alcohol, unless you boil off all the liquid.

Bonus Fact:

  • Besides for flavor, alcohol is added to fondue because it lowers the boiling point of the cheese and, thus, helps to prevent curdling.

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19 Comments »

  1. HunterJE March 24, 2012 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    While this may all be true, you also have to do some maths — for example, a dish that calls for two tablespoons of cooking wine and makes four servings ends up with the equivalent of one sip per person, spread through the entire serving; it’s even less if the wine’s in, say, a marinade which is largely discarded. Even for alcohol-sensitive, recovering alcoholic, or underage diners that’s not going to be a meaningful concentration even if not an ounce cooks off.

    • foxxtrot July 9, 2013 at 6:56 am - Reply

      As someone who does not want to drink ANY alcohol, I find even a “sip” as unacceptable. ty

      • Jonathan DeBusk October 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm - Reply

        @foxxtrot You do realize that ethanol occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables? There’s even an ISO standard to determine the ethanol content in a standardized manner (ISO 2448). So are you going to give up all plant matter in your diet due to some bizarre moral disdain for “ANY alcohol”?

  2. patrick December 28, 2012 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Actually this person is about 90% wrong…i have been apart of 2 experiments dealing with this…and in most pf the tests the alcohol burned out …and the alcohol thats was left i. Some foods was very very little…

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey January 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm - Reply

      @patrick: which experiments? Please cite the papers showing the results. Also, to make a more compelling argument, you should probably explain why the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Idaho, and Washington State University’s study’s results were wrong on this.

  3. The Dude October 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Contradictary and misleading. How can you say it doesn’t cook out, when clearly it cooks out. You might say it does not completely cook out 100%. But it is cooking out.

  4. amber November 1, 2013 at 11:12 am - Reply

    this is actually true. As someone with a liver illness, I’ve been directed not to eat food that has been cooked with alcohol as it does not cook out fully. Even a sip could harm me.

  5. Wayne Fenwick January 10, 2014 at 5:45 am - Reply

    So when adding alcohol to food I add it at the last possible moment and then remove it from the heat. ( You cook your way, I’ll cook mine)

    • Chris T. August 15, 2014 at 6:50 am - Reply

      Yes of course it is up to you how you cook. The only difference is now you are aware that you (and those dining with you) will be consuming alcohol.

  6. Jim January 11, 2014 at 8:16 am - Reply

    This post definitely led me to do a bunch of digging, since I cook with beer a lot (mostly for braising or in stews). There’s been some more research since the Augustin studies; one study in particular (Mateus et al 2011, in Food Chemistry) found that 70% of alcohol was cooked out of a fish stew (when alcohol was added with cold ingredients and cooked, covered, for 45min) and 95% was cooked out of a beef stew (when added to boiling ingredients and cooked, covered, for 1hr).

    Based on the Augustin and Mateus papers, it seems like most of the alcohol does actually cook out of food (in a lot of common preparations), but that it’s also tricky (impossible?) to cook out 100% of the alcohol without REALLY cooking the hell out of it.

  7. dennis king April 17, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

    What about like using beer as a marinade, lets say soaking a steak for an 1 hr period, take the meat out and grill it. Not cooking in beer.

    • Chris T. August 15, 2014 at 6:57 am - Reply

      Very minimal unless you inject it. The searing would be hot enough to burn out most of it. You can always switch to O’douls if it worries you.

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