Questioned about the alcohol content of a dish, we have all heard a cook or waiter say, "There is wine added, but all the alcohol is removed in the cooking process." Regardless of how often this belief is repeated, it is definitively, scientifically wrong. No matter how long you cook wine, you will never eliminate 100 percent of the alcohol. When necessary, substitutions allow us to prepare alcohol-free cuisine using recipes that call for wine.
It's a Hot Myth
Alcohol alone will evaporate at 172 degrees Fahrenheit. In wine, water and alcohol form an azeotrope, a liquid mixture in which the boiling point of the combined constituent components is different than when the components are boiled alone. The positively and negatively charged oxygen and hydrogen atoms in water and alcohol have a strong electrostatic attraction for each other and act like magnets, binding together to form a hydrogen bond, which takes on the 212 F boiling point of water. Once wine has been added to a preparation, if any liquid remains, alcohol remains.
How Low Can You Go?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory determined that when baking or simmering a mixture with added alcohol, 40 percent of wine's alcohol will have been eliminated after 15 minutes and in 2.5 hours, 95 percent of wine's alcohol will evaporate. America's Test Kitchen removed 99.8 percent of the alcohol from a sauce of two cups of wine and one cup of chicken chicken broth by first cooking down the wine on its own, proving it is possible to remove all but trace amounts of alcohol via reduction.
Verjus is an elegant non-alcoholic substitute for cooking wine. Made from unripe grapes, verjus is unfermented, but has qualities cooks prize in wine: high acidity, sweet and tart notes and as many different flavor profiles as there are vintages. It is available in white, red and rosé. Alcohol-free solutions using common pantry items include adding a tablespoon of red wine vinegar to grape, pomegranate or cranberry juice to mimic red wine's depth, fruitiness and acidity or mixing rice vinegar and white grape juice in equal proportion to substitute for white wine.
Succulence and Sensibility
Alcohol's harshness and tannic impact on the palate is mitigated relatively early as we cook, though considerations about the amount of alcohol in food often have less to do with attaining ideal flavor than with the preferences and dietary restrictions of the diners. Knowing we can never eliminate all the alcohol from wine by cooking it informs whether we will be able to use it in certain dishes while still respecting specific people's cultural, religious or health guidelines. Avoiding alcohol as an ingredient altogether is imperative for alcohol-free food.
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