Does alcohol always burn off during cooking?

Many people use alcoholic beverages — whether liquor, spirits, wine or beer — to add flavor to everything from roasts to cakes.

Despite lore that says all the alcohol burns off when you cook it, that’s not always true. Here’s why.

salmon cooking with wine

Cooking with wine?

So you made a casserole and added wine to it before putting it in the oven to bake. Then your sister-in-law — or spouse, or neighbor — tells you there is no way that you should serve that to kids, because not all of the alcohol burns off during cooking — that’s just a myth.

Many of us have always heard that if you cook food with alcohol in it, the alcohol dissipates and all that remains is the flavor. Which is it?

How much booze burns off?

According to a 1992 study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the amount of alcohol that actually cooks off varies, based on how long the food has been cooked, how it’s been cooked, at what temperature, the type of baking dish used, the specific type of alcohol used, and the ingredients in the food itself.

In general, the longer you heat the booze, the less alcohol remains. For example, if you simmer the food for several hours, only about 5 percent of the alcohol will remain. But if you adding wine, beer or spirits to a boiling sauce just before serving, roughly 80% of the alcohol will still be left behind.

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Nutritionists at Washington State University and the University of Idaho, together with the US Department of Agriculture, ran cooking experiments using both wine and sherry, and found that long simmering in a wide pan was the most effective way to remove alcohol from food, while baking appeared to be the least.

Alcohol burn-off chart
Preparation method Alcohol remaining Alcohol removed
Alcohol added to boiling liquid, removed from heat 85% 15%
Flamed (or flambé) 75% 25%
Stirred in and baked or simmered for… (see below) (see below)
15 minutes
30 minutes
1 hour
1 1/2 hours
2 hours
2 1/2 hours

* These figures are based on US Department of Agriculture Research

Low- and no-alcohol

“Nonalcoholic” is officially defined as containing no more than 0.5 percent alcohol — that’s half of one percent.

If you’re trying to burn off as much alcohol as possible and want just the flavor, your best bet is a lengthy simmer. Leave the pan or pot uncovered so you don’t interfere with the evaporative process, and let the alcohol go.

Fortunately, if the alcohol is a problem in any way, it’s simple to substitute! For savory foods, consider using broth, stock, vinegar or juice to replace the alcohol — and for sweet dishes, experiment with juice, juice concentrates, extracts, and flavored syrup.

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