Especially around the holidays, families sometimes revive stories about relatives getting tipsy on rum cake or burgundy beef. The punch line is usually that the alcohol in the recipe had, of course, burned off during cooking. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study, however, indicates that a surprising amount of alcohol can be retained in any recipe, including in baked goods, depending on the cooking method and other factors.
According to the USDA comparison of cooking methods, the most alcohol is retained when food is flambeed. A dish of flambeed cherries jubilee, for example, may retain as much as 75 percent of the alcohol added. In baked or simmered dishes, the amount of alcohol retained is directly related to the length of cooking time -- from 40 percent after 15 minutes of cooking to 5 percent after 2 1/2 hours. Researchers concluded that three hours of baking or simmering were required to ensure that alcohol had been 100 percent dispelled. For baked goods, from muffins which can be done in 20 minutes to dense pound-style cakes requiring an hour of cooking, alcohol retention is still an issue.
Generally, alcohols ranging from beer to whiskey boil somewhere between 140 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Prolonged cooking at or above the boiling point is essential to convert liquid alcohol into a gas that diffuses into the air. In addition to the length of cooking time and temperature, increasing the size of a pan also increases the surface exposure of its contents, which can dispel alcohol faster. So the alcohol in brandy-snap cookies baked on a cookie sheet may disperse more rapidly than the same amount of alcohol stirred into a loaf cake recipe.
Special Baking Challenges
Choosing a 9-inch pan over an 8-inch pan increases the surface area of a cake or other batter. Rolling cookies thin rather than thick and making muffins instead of a quick-bread loaf are other ways to increase surface area. Because baked goods form a crust during cooking, this dense outer coat can trap vapors and slow the diffusion of alcohol in gas form, in contrast to the rate of diffusion in a stew or soup. Furthermore, in a recipe like beer-cheese bread, an alcoholic liquid furnishes a significant portion of the moisture of the dish overall. Burning off all the alcohol must be balanced against preserving an appropriate texture.
Hype, Haute or Habit
Look at why you add alcohol to a baking recipe to clarify whether you want to continue doing so. The rum in eggnog, bundt cake or fruit cake adds a very specific taste to the finished product, and removing it will change the flavor -- although not necessarily for the worse. In a complexly seasoned dark fruitcake, however, the taste of added brandy may get lost in the spices, and the chopped fruits provide plenty of moisture. According to "Cook's Illustrated," adding vodka to pie crust in place of water makes the finished product lighter and flakier. This may sound like fun to try, but there are many less-expensive, non-alcoholic ways to create flaky pie crust.
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- Real Simple: Cooking Myths Debunked, page 3
- The Kitchn: Recipe Review: The Cook's Illustrated Vodka Pie Crust
- What's Cooking America: Alcohol Substitutions in - How to Substitute for Alcohol
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