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Does cooking burn off alcohol?

Thursday, September 03, 1998

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

Does the alcohol in beer really disappear during cooking, like most cookbooks will tell you?

Yes. No. It depends.

Yes: "If you heat it long enough, the alcohol will leave," says Mark Daeschel, a food microbiologist at Oregon State University, where he teaches brewing science and analysis and has experimented with cooking off alcohol. "In 10 minutes, 80 to 90 percent of the alcohol will go up in smoke. In 30 minutes, 95 percent is gone."

Unless ... "That's assuming you don't have a lid on the pot," Daeschel adds. If the dish is covered, the alcohol will condense underneath and drip back in.

No: "The assumption by the chemist in me is that all the alcohol would have to disappear. But it doesn't," says Manfred Kroger, professor of food science at Penn State University. "It varies, how much alcohol would disappear. It may be 50 percent, it may be 75 percent. The kind of food, the temperature, and components like fat may trap the alcohol longer."

Though most cookbooks tell you that all the alcohol burns off, the process is more complicated.

True, alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water - 86 degrees centigrade vs. 100 degrees C. for water, says Daeschel, who did his experiments boiling beer alone. He found that boiling it 30 minutes will get it down into the NA, or nonalcoholic, category, which by law means it contains less than .5 percent alcohol.

But other factors come into play, especially when beer is cooked in food.

Nutritionists from Washington State University, the University of Idaho and U.S. Department of Agriculture experimented with cooking with alcohol, though not with beer, but with wine and sherry. They cooked two Burgundy-laden dishes similar to boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, plus scalloped oysters with sherry. Anywhere from 4 percent to 49 percent of the original alcohol remained, depending on the method (simmering or baking), the temperature, the time and even on the size of the pan.

Long simmering in a wide pan was the most effective way to remove alcohol; baking appeared to be the least.

Kroger agrees: "The longer you have it simmering away, the more alcohol will disappear." But still, he says, "Theoretically, you could boil all day, but as long as there is some water, there would be a little bit of alcohol. In science, you never get to an absolute, bone dry."

And any alcohol that stays behind, he says, could "do a disservice to a recovering alcoholic, or somebody who is religiously against alcohol."

Again, it's hard to find a consensus on that.

To further stir the pot, Robert Bates, who teaches industrial food fermentation at the University of Florida, says that "after any length of time, the alcohol would be gone."

Or at least, he says, it would be present in "highly undetectable amounts," as in parts per million level. It could be higher, of course, in dishes where the alcohol is just splashed in at the end of cooking. But in dishes such as stews, he says, which "get quite a workout, I can't conceive of alcohol being left in there. The volatility of alcohol wouldn't permit it to stick around."

In fact, he says he'd be surprised if there were more alcohol left in, say, beer bread, which is baked in a 350-degree oven for an hour, than "if you squeezed a fresh orange." And he doubts seriously that a loaf of beer bread would "trigger anything in an alcoholic."

Taste is, after all, what alcoholic beverages add to food. Beer is low in alcohol, anyway - typically 4 percent to 6 percent, though it can go higher. And once it's dispersed in food, it's hardly potent, whatever amounts of alcohol may remain.

Says Kroger: "In my mind, whenever you add alcohol, flavor is the most important thing. You don't do it for the alcohol," which he says has a minimal effect. "If you are an alcoholic, you wouldn't waste it boiling or burning it."

But some people can be "hooked" just by, say, the beery flavor that the malt imparts, he says. "It's like blowing smoke at a former smoker. It's a big joke but it could have serious mental and even physiological repercussions."

Dr. Abraham Twerski, director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, agrees that people with alcohol problems shouldn't risk eating food cooked in beer - or drinking non-alcoholic beer, either, some of which has .5 percent alcohol, "which is not good."

"Even if the alcohol in food is likely to be cooked off," Twerski says, "for some people having just a tiny bit of alcohol, the taste may be enough to set the person off."

Just to be safe, Mary Beth Pastorius says that at the Penn Brewery Restaurant "we try to be very clear on the menu" so that customers who shouldn't consume alcohol in any manner know that a dish was cooked with beer.



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