Truth or myth: Does all the alcohol burn off when cooking with spirits?

Cooking with alcohol won't necessarily get you drunk, but it doesn't all actually burn off when you cook with it, either.

We've all seen the movies where the chef or home cook sips the cooking wine or the sherry and gets a bit tipsy while preparing a meal, but it is common knowledge that when the alcoholic cooking additive is heated, the alcohol burns off. So when Kris Kristofferson added Jack Daniels to his breakfast eggs in "A Star Is Born," he really wasn't getting any of the dog that bit him to help with his hangover -- right? The truth is: He got more of it than one might expect (which is most likely why it was used as a hangover remedy in the first place). In fact, the idea that all alcohol is burned off when heat is applied to a cooking dish with wine, sherry, or any variety of liquor (or liqueur) is patently false.

But that's not the entire story...

For those teetotalers out there (not to mention those with religious objections regarding the consumption of alcohol) who enjoy the art of cooking, take note: Although heating a dish with alcohol in it does tend to burn off a percentage of the alcohol, all of it is not eliminated. Truthfully, depending on the method of cooking, the amount burned off can be rather minuscule.

Take a look at this: According to a 2003 study by the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory , the amount of alcohol retention can measure from 5 percent all the way to 85 percent. For example, if you are boiling a dish that requires a bit of sherry, the dish will retain about 85 percent of the alcohol you've added. If flamed, the dish will retain roughly 75 percent of its alcohol content.

Time is the necessary ingredient to decrease the amount of alcohol in any given dish, and the best way to decrease said amount is via baking it off or allowing your cooked dish to simmer. A baked or simmered recipe can retain as much as 40 percent of the alcohol after 15 minutes and loses about 5 percent every 15 minutes for the first hour. After that, it will lose 5 percent every half hour. According to a burn-off chart at About.com, gleaned from the Department of Agriculture, after 2 hours, only about 5 percent of the original amount of alcohol will remain.

So if your favorite chili recipe calls for vodka and you want all of the flavor but none of the alcohol (except perhaps trace amounts), you might want to let the concoction simmer for about three hours.

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You can even get a head start on things by allowing your preparation to sit overnight in a refrigerator. Even without heat added, alcohol evaporates and will lose 30 percent of its original content (retaining 70 percent, of course).

So don't be taken in by the common "knowledge" that all alcohol evaporates or is burned off when added to a cooking or heated dish. Only portions of it dissipate. For any large amounts of alcohol to be eliminated, it takes time and constant application of heat.

Still, the use of alcoholic spirits in cooking isn't about getting buzzed or tipsy anyway. It's all about the flavoring the alcohol provides the dish. So pour some beer in that batter for your onion rings. Toss in a nice dollop of red wine in that Marchand de Vin sauce. Besides, most recipes usually call for only small amounts of alcohol to be added to a dish, the quantity far from enough to inebriate. And if boiled, flamed, baked, or simmered, the amount of alcohol actually taken in is negligible at best.

(photo credit: JD, Creative Commons)

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