Cooking with alcohol

Alcoholic beverages have long functioned as more than drinks. They flavor glazes, sauces, soups, stews, and desserts. Old cookbooks and newer cooking apps provide instructions for deglazing a pan with wine, flavoring soups with a splash of sherry, and stirring a shot or two of marsala into eggy custard sauces.

Compared to our grandparents, today’s cooks and bakers have access to a much wider array of alcoholic beverages. Thanks to travel and well-stocked liquor stores, we are expanding our repertoires by creating new flavor combinations with alcoholic beverages. Limoncello-flavored chicken? Not bad. Vodka-flavored tomato sauce? So yesterday, but good. Cakes flavored with adult beverages and baked into fun and easy-to-eat shapes have been a deliciously growing trend.

Occasionally, recipes using alcohol also come with the suggestion that they are somehow better for you because the alcohol calories get lost in cooking, leaving only the flavor for you to enjoy. Alcohol cooks out, flavor stays—that’s the story.

Why do some food myths take so long to disappear? It’s been 20 years since the benchmark study that showed how much alcohol is retained (meaning “not lost”) during various cooking methods. Scientists use information on how cooking and storing food affects nutrient profiles in order to make relevant dietary recommendations. After experimenting with alcohol under various cooking conditions, researchers found that 15% to 95% of the alcohol was lost, but never all. Alcohol evaporates easily, and maybe that is one reason we hold onto our belief that it all burns off. Or maybe it’s just that the cooking instructions of our youth are deeply ingrained.

The most recent data on food preparation effects on nutrients is published in the USDA Table of Nutrient Retention Factors. We are currently on Release 6, and it again shows the findings of that 1992 study on alcohol retention. You can find it at USDA.gov, along with other advice on shopping, cooking and meal planning. [If you find yourself lingering at this site, you may have a career in food and nutrition ahead of you!]

USDA researchers found that alcohol retention depends on food preparation conditions:

How alcoholic beverage is used Kitchen example(s) Alcohol retained
Mixed into food, no heat, stored overnight Mousse with Kahlua; Brandied Eggnog Pie 70 %
Stirred into hot liquid Irish Coffee 85 %
Flamed Cherries Jubilee 75 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 15 minutes Mulled Wine 40 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 30 minutes Cupcakes; Risotto 35 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 1 hour Chicken Cacciatore; Bundt Cake with Rum 25 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 1.5 hrs Sherried Black Bean Soup 20 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 2 hrs Spaghetti Sauce 10 %
Stirred and simmered or baked for 2.5 hrs Beef Stew 5 %

[Table adapted from Augustin J, Augustin E, Cutrufelli RL, Hagen SR, Teitzel C. 1992. Alcohol retention in food preparation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 92(4):486-8 and USDA Table of Nutrient Retention Factors, Release 6, accessed 2.24.2012.]

Taste and smell senses are closely linked to the area of the brain that also stores emotional memories; the flavors and fragrances of foods often bring back experiences that moved us. Whether you want to savor favorite memories of Mexican beaches or the Moravian forests, of childhood, or just to experiment with a bottle that intrigued you at the store, cooking with alcoholic beverages can stimulate those memories. And it can engage your creative side. Who knows, one of these kitchen experiments could morph into a new tradition: chocolate cupcakes with Kirsch for your favorite chocoholic? I have a tower-shaped bottle of Vanna Tallinn liqueur from a trip with extended family to our parents’ home country of Estonia. For a long time, it sat in the pantry. Then, my niece introduced me to Licor 43 stirred into milk, served over ice. Turns out that Vanna Tallinn tastes great that way, but also stirred into hot milk (think “almond steamer” at the coffee shop)! As I write this, I’m thinking “birthday cake layered with flavored whipped cream.”

The amount of alcohol per serving in any cooked dish is likely to be small and definitely less caloric than the sugars in cordials or liqueurs. To help you determine how much alcohol might be left in your dish, the table below shows the total alcohol in recipe portions of various alcoholic beverages.

Typical alcohol and carbohydrate content of alcoholic beverages, with calorie values: [4 fluid ounces = ½ cup = 120 milliliters = 8 tablespoons].

Alcoholic beverage, fluid ounces (FO) Alcohol Grams Carb Grams Calories
Beer (12 FO) 14 13 150
Wine: dry sherry, Madeira (6 FO) 27 24 280
Wine: red or dry white (6 FO) 18 5 150
Spirits: brandy, whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila (4 FO) 37 0 260
Flavored Spirits: peach schnapps, lemon vodka (4 FO) 31 19 290
Cordials, fruity, nutty, herbal: Kirsch, Cointreau, Amaretto, Benedictine, Becherovka, Kümmel (4 FO) 25 40 320
Cordials, coffee: Tia Maria, Kahlua (4 FO) 12 67 340
Cordial: Irish Cream (4 FO) 17 26 (+ 20 gm fat) 410

A kitchen example using these tables: Beer Cheese Soup for 6, made with a bottle of beer and simmered for up to an hour:

  • One 12-ounce beer contains 14 grams alcohol, 25% is retained after 1 hr = 3.5 grams alcohol
  • Divide 3.5 grams by 6 for the 6 servings = 0.6 gram alcohol per serving
  • At 7 calories/gram of alcohol = 4 alcohol calories per serving of beer cheese soup

That small amount is practically zero, definitely not enough to make you tipsy, but it is not zero.

So, enjoy vicarious travel and kitchen creativity—without illusions. All most cooks really want is to bring a smile to their tablemate. Let’s feed fond memories and help to ditch an old, old myth. 20 years is long enough for everyone to get the message: there’s always some alcohol left after cooking.