• Can we really eliminate the ethanol content of that 'glug' of alcohol we added to the pan, just by cooking it out? (iStockphoto/Getty Images)Source: iStockphoto/Getty Images
That long-held assumption that bringing wine to a boil simply cooks off its alcohol content may not be quite right.
Yasmin Noone

16 Jul 2021 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2021 - 3:47 PM

--- Learn endless cooking tips and tricks on The Cook Up with Adam Liaw which airs weeknights on SBS Food at 7.00pm and 10.00pm, or stream it free on SBS On Demand. Watch the 'cooking with wine' episode 6 January. ---


When you pour a generous glug of alcohol over ingredients in a pan, you're adding a liquid depth that’s central to the cultural flavour of your dish. Let’s face it: if it wasn’t for red wine, our taste buds wouldn’t recognise beef Bourguignon and if it wasn’t for Chinese rice wine, kung pao chicken wouldn’t pack such a punch.

But not everyone can consume alcohol, even in small quantities. So the scientific question stirring about in every home cook’s kitchen is simple: can we really eliminate the ethanol content of that 'glug' of alcohol, just by cooking it out?

Can you really 'cook off' all that beer and wine? 

A Danish study, published in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science in 2016, saw researchers experiment with beer to determine whether you can ‘cook out the alcohol added to beer-based recipes.

The study looked at 10 dishes traditionally prepared with beer, including pancakes, carrot soup, rye bread, steamed fish, marinated spare ribs and braised beef. The estimated amount of ethanol per serving was calculated accordingly.

The results showed that the dishes cooked with beer all contained alcohol. However, the concentration of alcohol was two-to-three per cent, which was below the detection limit. The study’s authors concluded that this amount was “of little concern to most people”.

"It’s likely there would ethanol that would be left over in your dish after cooking but the amount would be residual and not enough to put you over the limit when driving."

Lecturer in Food Science at University of Sydney, Dr Kim-Yen Phan-Thien, agrees that cooking a dish with an alcoholic beverage over high heat for a few minutes or even half an hour can eliminate a lot of ethanol but it doesn’t always get rid of it all.

“If you’re using rice wine in a dish – for example – you would only use a small amount that would then decrease as you cook it,” Dr Phan-Thien tells SBS. “It’s likely there would be ethanol that would be leftover in your dish after cooking but the amount would be residual and not enough to put you over the limit when driving.

“However, if you are avoiding alcohol for religious or health reasons, then it might be significant enough to reconsider adding alcohol to the dish.”

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Why cooking alcohol doesn’t always eliminate it

Cooking with alcohol results in some but not the total loss of alcohol through the process of evaporation. Yet there are so many variables affecting ethanol evaporation. One of them is time. A lot of recipes call for deglazing a pan with wine, then bringing it to boil. Others suggest a quick treatment over high heat or an hour-long session of oven roasting with your protein of choice. 

The facts state that the longer the cook, the more alcohol gets cooked out. According to a 1992 US study, food has to be cooked for around three hours for most alcohol to be cooked out. But the rate of ethanol evaporation is also dependent on heat and your cooking method. Food simmered in alcohol for 15 minutes only lost 60 per cent of the alcohol content. Five per cent of alcohol was left over a 2.5 hour-long cook. 

Put simply, the more ingredients mixed in with an alcoholic drop, the harder it may be to ‘cook off’ the alcohol in your dish.

One reason why ethanol can’t always be ‘cooked off’ quickly has to do with the other ingredients you’re cooking with.

“Ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, at around 78 degrees Celsius,” Dr Phan-Thien tells SBS. “If you had 100 per cent ethanol in a pot, you could adjust the temperature to around 78 degrees Celsius, and that would boil off the alcohol to nothing.

"But, let’s say you add water to ethanol [or an alcoholic beverage] so that 70 per cent of the liquid was ethanol and 30 per cent was water. As the concentration of ethanol decreases, it becomes harder to boil off because there's an interaction between the chemicals. They stick to each other and it’s harder to separate. Water will hold onto the ethanol.”

This scenario only features two ingredients: water and alcohol. But in most recipes, there are a lot more. “You may have sugar, flavours and solid foods in the same pan – they all interact as well and will make it more difficult to cook off your alcohol.”

Put simply, the more ingredients mixed in with an alcoholic drop, the harder it may be to ‘cook off’ the alcohol in your dish.

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What else can I do to minimise the alcohol in my cooked dish?

If you’re trying to avoid alcohol altogether, Dr Phan-Thien recommends you boil the alcoholic beverage on its own first, heating it to the point that it is bubbling, before you add it to other ingredients. “That’s probably the safest way to cook with alcohol if you want to minimise alcoholic content of a dish.”

The food scientist adds that slow cooking a dish with a lid, raising the lid occasionally to let out accumulated vapour during the long cook, could also help to burn off ethanol.

Another Danish study backs this up. The research, published in Food Chemistry in 2017, examined how ethanol reacted when cooked in 47 different stock reductions prepared with alcoholic beverages.

“The researchers found that having a lid on the pot for broths actually increased the evaporation."

The study showed that the use of the lid dramatically enhanced the loss of ethanol. The lid of the pot acted as a condenser of sorts, helping to separate the ethanol and water in the stock.

“The researchers found that having a lid on the pot for broths actually increased the evaporation. You’ll have less residual ethanol in your dish when you cook with an alcoholic beverage in a pot with a lid, as opposed to the same pot without a lid.

“So if you want to cook off alcohol, it’s best to keep the lid on for most of its cooking time.

"...But if you have to avoid alcohol because you of religious, cultural or health concerns, it could be best to avoid adding any alcohol to your cooking. Consider alternative non-alcoholic ingredients instead.”

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