How many times have you read or heard that the alcohol in vanilla extract bakes out in a cake? Or that all that red wine in your spaghetti sauce or boeuf bourguignon leaves only its flavor after cooking? Or that when you flambé your crepes Suzette with Cointreau or your bananas Foster with rum, that the flames are burning off all the alcohol in it?
Well, the truth is… these culinary myths ares just plain wrong.
"It takes about three hours of hard cooking to eliminate all traces of alcohol in most foods."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Data lab, food with alcohol in it that is baked or simmered for 15 minutes still has 40 percent of the original alcohol in it. After an hour of cooking, 25 percent of the alcohol remains, and even after two-and-a-half hours there's still 5 percent of it is remaining! Oh, and that flambé? As much as 85% of the alcohol remains! It takes about three hours of hard cooking to eliminate all traces of alcohol in most foods.
This is not new news. In the study (originating in 1992 and most recently updated in 2007), nutritionists from Washington State University, and the University of Idaho together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture experimented with dishes cooked with wine and sherry. They cooked two wine-heavy recipes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, plus a scalloped oyster dish with sherry. Varying methods, temperatures, cooking times, etc. gave widely dispersed results from 4 percent to 49 percent retained alcohol for the dishes. None of the dishes were 100% free of their alcohol after the cooking.
Most often, we add alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, spirits) to food to add specific desired flavors and aromas to the finished products.
Besides alcoholic beverages, most of the flavoring extracts we add to foods also contain alcohol (sometimes a lot!). Extracts are concentrated solutions made from drawing flavoring elements out of an ingredient like vanilla extract from vanilla beans.
The alcohol in extracts can vary from 20% to 90% and primarily serves to preserve the aroma and taste of the original flavoring ingredient. The alcohol can also act as a carrier across mucous membranes, increasing the impact of the flavor profile as we eat it.
While extracts may contain a high percentage of alcohol, the total dose of alcohol is so low that the amount of alcohol consumed is minuscule. For example, 30 drops (roughly 1/3 teaspoon) of an extract that is 90% alcohol in 1 cup of water yields an alcohol content of 0.15%, equivalent to about 1/250th of a 12-oz bottle of beer or 1/320th of a 6-oz glass of wine.
In fact, lots of people. Even if 99.9% of the alcohol in a food is cooked off, there are plenty of people for whom even having the tiniest bit of alcohol or even the taste of alcohol may be unacceptable. Best practices dictate that food intended for children, pregnant women, and those trying to detox from alcohol should have NO alcohol in them. Likewise, for those who abstain for ethical, religious or health-related reasons.
Here are some ingredient flavor hacks to avoid using any alcohol in a recipe:
• Instead of brandy, try mixing water, white grape juice, apple juice and peach juice in equal parts.
• Cointreau, triple sec and Grand Marnier may be replaced with orange juice concentrate
• Use rice vinegar instead of sake
• Use white grape juice or slightly diluted white wine vinegar instead of dry vermouth.
• You can replace vodka with apple cider and lime juice in equal parts.
When a small amount of alcohol retention is acceptable try:
• Replacing Amaretto with a few drops of almond extract
• For Anisette flavor use a bit of fennel extract
• For any orange liqueur, a bit of orange essential oil will go a long way.