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Once and for all. Does Alcohol cook out or not?

Most celeb' Chefs make statements like,"flambe to burn off most of the alcohol." Alton Brown makes reference to never being able to cook all the alcohol off. People will say, " I can't eat Wine Sauce, I'm an Alcoholic." So if the boiling point of Ethanol is 173.1 F and sauces are brought to the boil then reduced to a simmer and cooked to the desired thickness. Assuming we are at sea level 212 F does the job. How can there still be any alcohol there!?!?... Thanks...JJ

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  1. For all intents and purposes it DOES cook off, at least to the point that whatever's left is ineffectual. However it takes time--I believe 'ineffectual' is reached in about two hours, so quick sauces will have some content. Enough to bother an alcoholic? I don't know, maybe just the slightest hint, or taste, is enough to trigger addiction.

    I once found a chart showing time vs. alcohol percent, if I can find it again I'll post that for you.

    1. I don't know the kinetics of the sea-level equation, but it's my belief that Alton Brown is right. It is certainly a fact that a flash flambe will not remove the alcohol. A true Boeuf Bourgignonne stands a much better chance, cooked low and slow for a couple hours is reputed to remove the vast majority of the actual proof. However, huuuge caveat: I have several friends in recovery who avoid any foods which contain alcohol, not only for fear of ingesting actual grain but because the base taste is still there and can be a trigger for relapse. Never, never do I cook for a problem drinker using any kind of booze.

      1. I honestly don't know if/when all the alcohol burns off. I do know that some alcoholics in recovery wish to avoid all traces & tastes of alcohol, which is why they may refuse any sauces or preparations that include alcohol in the ingredients. It isn't worth the risk of triggering a craving or relapse for that food, no matter how wonderful it may taste. The reality of if any alcohol actually remains is not the issue. Of course, some people who do not drink will happily eat foods created with alcohol - but it is always best to let him/her make an informed decision.

        1. A flambe is the opposite - Most of the alcohol remains. In all cases, the food (what's it mixed with), heat and time factors into how much of it remains.

          Boiling and simmering something long enough gets rid of all the alcohol, but only in theory, and you'd still have to do it for a long time. It's no different than how a single distillation won't get you 100% pure of anything. Things just get contaminated. In this case, the the alcohol vapor can get trapped, the vapor can quickly condense back into the sauce, there could be uneven heating/energy distribution, etc.

          Getting back to the sauce, since sauces aren't reduced aggressively and it doesn't spend hours on the fire, it's best that those with problems avoid alcohol based ones.

          2 Replies
          1. re: ediblover

            My husband is an alcoholic and the alcohol content is irrelevant. He is extremely turned off by the smell and taste of alcohol and no matter how much you cook the item, he can still tell that it was there. If I order a dessert that has a teaspoon of liquor in it, he can tell from across the table.

            1. re: Kajikit

              I respect his choice to not have any alcohol in his food prep, recovery has on time limit.

          2. It takes longer than you might think. There's a chart here that I used to decide how to handle the wine in Choppino for a loved one who loves the dish, but is a recovering alchoholic. I simmer the wine alone for an hour before adding it to the recipe. The end result does not have an "alchohol" taste. I know this isn't the answer for everybody, but it works for us.

            http://homecooking.about.com/library/...

            6 Replies
            1. re: Liz K

              There seems to be a slight misunderstanding, I used the example of an Alcoholic as simply that, an example. I did not intent to be disrespectful of a very serious disease, I have close family members that are in recovery and I myself have been free of an Oxycontin addiction for 27 months. I thank all of you for your input and do apologize for any hurt feelings. Liz, that chart is informative and amazing! I had no idea there is so much alcohol retention over such a long cooking time. Thanks... Happy Thanksgiving All!...JJ

              1. re: Chef Jimmy J

                JJ, GOOD ON YOU. I mean that in the most sincere way, and applaud your candor and your recovery. I didn't feel that the question you posed was in any way disrespectful. Just sayin.

                1. re: Chef Jimmy J

                  I don't think you were disrespectful at all. It's a legitimate question. My sister is in recovery. She would never avoid vanilla extract or a dessert with a small amount of alcohol that she can't taste or feel. That's her own decision, though, and she isn't concerned about triggers that way. Others in recovery don't want to consume the stuff at all, regardless of if it's still alcoholic or not.

                  I think the question is also relevant to religious people who don't believe in alcohol at all. Muslims or Mormons, for example. You wouldn't tell a Kosher Jew to render the bacon fat down until you can't taste it, so I think knowing the truth in whether or not alcohol "vanishes" at a certain point is good information.

                  1. re: Azizeh

                    Excellent point and Thank You...JJ

                2. re: Liz K

                  Thank you for the chart! It's very useful not just for alchoholics, but also for moms deciding whether kids should eat coq-au-vin:)

                3. There is a cooking situation using alcohol that makes the alcohol content irrelavant and that is using vanilla extract in cake baking. By the time the cake is baked in the oven the teaspoon of vanilla and it's small amount of alcohol is long since gone and the flavor of vanilla remains. The same thing with the Cook's Illustrated vodka pie crust. After baking in a hot oven the aldohol is gone and the flaky crust remains.

                  1. I learned in rehab not to trust that all the alcohol will burn off. For some alcoholics, just a tiny taste is enough to kick off the begining of them drinking again. Even using Vanilla extract can
                    be dangerous for some people. I don't know how there can be, scientifically speaking, but it
                    must be, or no need for warnings.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Nanzi

                      I know men in recovery who won't even wear aftershave, not so much about content and absorption as the whiff of alcohol that's always the back-scent. I just think it's safer to avoid alcohol in any form altogether in cookery or baking if there's a concern about the alcohol content. It may suffer a tad in flavor, vis-a-vis vanilla extract vs. fake vanilla flavoring; but it will be safe.

                      1. re: mamachef

                        "It may suffer a tad in flavor, vis-a-vis vanilla extract vs. fake vanilla flavoring; "
                        ~~~~~~~
                        just use fresh vanilla beans! ;)

                    2. Once and for all, the answer is no. The reason for this is a chemical phenomenon called an "azeotrope", where two compounds associate closely with each other (ie. ethanol and water) and behave as a single molecule. So the ethanol azeotropes with the water, and assumes the boiling point of water. While there may be only a very small percentage of the ethanol still present after a long cooking time, it's still there. If you wanted to get rid of absolutely of all the ethanol, you'd have to boil away all of the water.

                      15 Replies
                      1. re: chococat

                        An awesome answer! This is the kind of thing that makes me proud to be a part of the Hound community! Thank you all for your knowledge and passion...JJ

                        1. re: chococat

                          Another thought. Would freezing the sauce after cooking remove the remaining alcohol? The freezing point of alcohol is something like -39 degrees F. Cumbersome, but effective?
                          This is an old method of making Pennsylvania Apple Jack.

                          1. re: Passadumkeg

                            Some people keep vodka in the freezer...don't think that removes the alchohol.

                              1. re: Liz K

                                Yes, I do keep vodka in the freeze too, but you misunderstand. If alcohol is in a water-based solution, like a sauce or apple cider, the water freezes solid at 32 degrees and the liquid alcohol can be poured of because it doesn't freeze until -39 degrees, which home freezers do not reach.
                                My Pa. relatives used to make apple jack by freezing fermented apple cider and pouring off the unfrozen, liquid, alcohol.

                                1. re: Passadumkeg

                                  You can isolate **some** of the water from the mixture containing alcohol this way, but not all of it. Ice will separate out of vodka that's been badly watered down. But at 60% water (80 proof), no ice separates. So if you wanted to get rid of all the alcohol, you'd have to throw away at least 60% of the stuff you wanted to keep.

                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                    I tried. Taking alcohol advise from me is like taking communion from a communist!

                                    1. re: Passadumkeg

                                      I always cook with wine. But I don't have any problem leaving it out of the food.

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        I always cook with wine, but it seldomly gets into the food.

                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                          wine in the food is better than whine at the table

                                  2. re: Passadumkeg

                                    I don't think this would be very effective. You're trying to freeze an alcohol solution, so the actual freezing process is going to depend on what's in the solution, and how it's mixed. The freezing point of salt water, for example, depends on the concentration of salt.

                                    When you put vodka (40% alcohol, 60% water)in the freezer, for example, the alcohol and water do not separate out when the mixture reaches 0 C - the entire thing stays liquid, if slightly more viscous.

                                    For sauces, my guess would be that the whole thing would freeze solid, but take longer and a lower temperature that pure water.

                                2. re: Passadumkeg

                                  Extremely cumbersome. Lots of waste doing this. The freeze reduction was done to increase the alcoholic content of applejack, which is gonna be fine if you're starting with something 15%-20% alcohol. Way too much waste if you're trying to cut down the last 5% in a sauce.

                                  1. re: jaykayen

                                    Agreed, but it is theoretically possible.

                                3. re: chococat

                                  bing bing bing...a winner

                                  great answer. high 90%s but not 100%

                                  1. re: chococat

                                    Maybe I'm misremembering, but I think that's incorrect. The formation of an azeotrope imposes an upper limit for ethanol concentration, but I've never heard of it creating a lower limit. Ethanol and water form an azeotrope when the water drops to 4.37% by weight. The practical effect of this is that simple distillation cannot raise alcohol content above 95.63%. But I'm pretty sure it can reduce alcohol content to zero.

                                  2. Water boils at 212 F. If you bring anything with water in it to a boil, and then cool it, there's still water in it unless you continue to boil it all away. If you fry something or roast something at a temperature above 212 F, a lot of water will remain in that food for a long time. You can't just heat something up and evaporate all the water in any food in a flash. Isn't the same thing true for alcohol, but beginning at a lower temperature? Besides being somewhat more volatile, doesn't alcohol evaporate in the same way but at a slightly lower temperature?

                                    1. For you ancients in the audience, the old name for an azeotrope was a constant boiling solution. Essentially, when a mixture of two liquids with different boiling points is boiled, the component that is in higher concentration than it will have in the constant boiling solution boils off faster, until the constant boiling ratio is achieved, after which the ratio of the two components remains constant until all of the solution has boiled away. The boiling point of the mixture will change during the process until the constant boiling ratio is achieved; then the boiling point of the mixture will remain constant. Thus, boiling a water/alcohol mixture will always contain both components no matter how long it is boiled, until no liquid remains.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: therealdoctorlew

                                        Final answer!! And he/she is right!
                                        The bottom, very bottom line is, if alcohol is a concern for ANY reason, don't use it.

                                      2. yes, if it makes a guest feel uncomfortable, then that's poor hospitality.

                                        there was a recent thread on including alcohol in a birthday cake and the consensus was pretty much the same, no point in messing around with triggers if you can avoid it.

                                        4 Replies
                                          1. re: Passadumkeg

                                            can I get an Amen?! can I ... oh right I just did, after posting that I meant to add if I were in recovery (not yet, knock on wood) and sensed everyone was refraining on their preferred libations because of my presence, I'd also feel uncomfortable - so yeah don't take me to a bar, but if I got the urge for a drink after dinner, I could swing by a liquor store on the way home and that would be my choice, so I just wouldn't serve a dish that everyone but me can eat - assuming you know any issues with that, if you don't, then it's not your fault and don't beat yourself up over it.

                                            1. re: hill food

                                              No, I have alchie friends and it's just an alcohol free night.

                                              1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                well that's cool too, I think I was trying to say I'd hate for people to be apologizing over their choices, I'd rather people just drink without comment or nobody does and since the food is communal nobody gets put on the spot regarding ingredients.

                                                nothing wrong with a 'dry' night. and if that's the best way to handle it, then, that's the best way to handle it. I'm so inarticulate these days, my intention is that it should all be about inclusion whenever possible.