Cooking with alcohol--how much alcohol is absorbed?
February 1, 2013 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone point me to reliable sources that can tell me how much alcohol actually gets absorbed in your system when you eat food cooked with it?

For example, this pull-apart bread (delicious!) or cooking a pasta sauce with wine? Would it be possible to fail an alcohol test by eating such foods?

Note: I am referring to blood tests, not breathalyzers.
posted by dysh to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This burnoff chart lets you figure out how much alcohol remains in a dish based on cooking method.
posted by payoto at 8:35 AM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Alcohol (in booze) is, I believe, ethanol, which boils at 172.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Consequently, I think it's safe to assume that in most cases, next to no alcohol will actually survive cooking and get into your bloodstream.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:36 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia has the link to the original source for that burnoff chart (a PDF).
posted by enn at 8:38 AM on February 1, 2013

The above being said, if you are stirring alcohol like wine into a sauce and continue boiling it after adding, it boils off pretty quickly. Plus keep in mind you are usually only adding small amounts relative to the total volume in most recipes. I think a normal adult human would have to eat a lot of wine sauce to fail a blood test.
posted by rocketpup at 8:39 AM on February 1, 2013

If by "fail", you mean in the legal-limits-for-drinking-and-driving-in-the-U.S., then I can respond with an absolute, categorical "no". It would not be possible to eat a non-insane amount of a non-insane foodstuff prepared with a non-insane amount of alcohol and get DRUNK-drunk off of it. Lots of factors at play there - how much booze can be used in a food before the food REEKS of booze and is inedible, how easily booze gets burned off by heat (very), how alcohol gets absorbed/metabolized when consumed in foodstuff form rather than chugged-down-in-liquid-form, etc.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:41 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The entire bread recipe you linked contains just over half a cup of beer, which in turn contains, at most, about two and a quarter teaspoons of alcohol. Even if none of it cooked off, you'd have to cram down about 10 loaves all at once before you were flirting with sobriety test problems.
posted by jon1270 at 8:43 AM on February 1, 2013

Well, actually, if the bread was made with 8% alcohol dark beer (definitely possible), a person consuming an entire loaf would consume about 4.5 oz of beer. If the person consuming the bread was a 100 pound woman and wanted to drive 15 minutes after eating an entire loaf of the bread mentioned, she would have a ~0.03% blood alcohol concentration. Although that's not illegal in any state for a person, it would be at the edge of what's legal for a commercial license or for a pilot.

Not saying that's realistic in any way whatsoever, but it should not be immediately assumed that cooked food has zero alcohol.
posted by saeculorum at 9:01 AM on February 1, 2013

Just for clarity, this is not a legal-limits-for-drinking-and-driving-in-the-U.S. test. I don't know the exact limit allowed, but it is definitely lower than the legal limit for driving. The test is to gauge whether or not person in question (who I'm cooking for) has consumed alcohol. One would assume there would be some amount allowed to account for orange juice/mouth wash etc., but I do not know what it is. Thank you for the answers so far!
posted by dysh at 9:05 AM on February 1, 2013

Easy answer: If you are cooking for someone who can not consume alcohol or chooses not to consume alcohol, you should not use alcohol in your cooking.
posted by saeculorum at 9:08 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Saeculorum, are you taking into account the alcohol boiling off in the bread there? It's baking for 25 to 35 minutes, and although the temperature inside the bread will not rise above about 205º as it cooks, that's well above the boiling point for alcohol.

Of course, your easy answer is also correct!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:10 AM on February 1, 2013

If you don't know the threshold for testing positive, there's no way to figure out how much alcohol is safe to cook with. The USDA chart shows that a food cooked for half an hour or less retains at least a third of its alcohol content.
posted by payoto at 9:12 AM on February 1, 2013

lapsangsouchong: Sorry, I should have noted that I was not including alcohol boiling off (in response to jon1270's scenario where no alcohol cooks off). However, it should be noted that bread does not boil, and only reaches >190°F when it is essentially done. If bread raises to temperatures >180°F for extended time, you end up with extremely dry bread.
posted by saeculorum at 9:13 AM on February 1, 2013

a person consuming an entire loaf would consume about 4.5 oz of beer. If the person consuming the bread was a 100 pound woman and wanted to drive 15 minutes after eating an entire loaf of the bread mentioned, she would have a ~0.03% blood alcohol concentration.

Yeah, I got my math wrong somewhere in there (though I think maybe saeculorum did too). 8% of 4.5 oz is 0.36 oz. A small adult might have 160 oz. of blood. One entire loaf (not accounting for cooking loss) would therefore contain enough alcohol to push BAC to 0.225% -- well over any legal limit -- if absorbed completely and instantaneously. Apologies if this has become a derail.
posted by jon1270 at 9:29 AM on February 1, 2013

Depending on the circumstances of the test the person may be getting an ethyl glucuronide test, which purportedly can detect that metabolite of alcohol in the urine up to 80 hours after consumption, although that varies with the amount of alcohol consumed and the cutoff for a positive result. More info on that test here. There are a lot of sites with info on that test out there that are by companies involved in selling or administering drug tests, so I am not sure how trustworthy they are.

One would assume there would be some amount allowed to account for orange juice/mouth wash etc., but I do not know what it is.
In some treatment situations people are instructed to abstain from products containing any alcohol, such as mouthwash. In that situation any positive result is cause for suspicion.

In other words, without knowing more about the scenario you describe, it can't be said with certainty that someone can eat food prepared with alcohol before a test without it being detected. In most situations it would probably be OK, but if the consequences for failing a test are harsh enough, it would make sense to avoid such foods entirely.
posted by TedW at 9:30 AM on February 1, 2013

Cecil Adams did a Straight Dope column on alcohol in cooking a while back. Their experiments used saliva-actived blood-alcohol-testing strips, presumably like these, which are supposedly more accurate than a breath test but not as accurate as a direct blood test.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:33 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think you can assume that if there is any alcohol in the food when the spoon meets the lips, that pretty much all of it will "get absorbed". To our bodies, it's food, and our bodies are extremely good at absorbing food.

But cooking will usually reduce it to a pittance. If you are talking about someone who avoids alcohol for religious or moral reasons, though, it's still too much.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:47 AM on February 1, 2013

If you are talking about someone who avoids alcohol due to alcoholism, even the flavor is too much. Agave nectar can be a trigger to someone who has been a tequila drinker, for example.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:56 AM on February 1, 2013

If someone is taking a drug that causes them to react violently to alcohol, like Antabuse, even trace amounts of alcohol aren't going to enhance the meal. Alcohol, even in consumable form, is a solvent, and any alcohol present is likely to be taken up in the blood. That straightdope article is a good resource. Here are some others: good comments
posted by theora55 at 10:49 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi, just to clarify further, please assume that in this case, the person in question neither objects morally or religiously to alcohol, is not triggered by the taste of alcohol, and is not allergic. They also have not been prohibited from consuming mouthwash, etc.

While this person drinking/getting drunk would be problematic, having consumed this bread (for instance) before, and most certainly not even getting a small buzz, I and said person are not concerned about that aspect.

I wish that I knew what the threshold for "failing" the test is; if anyone knows what standard blood tests for alcohol call for, that would be great. (I tried to read the link TedW suggested, but I couldn't find that information, but possibly only because I got lost in the jargon.)

I just think it would be kind of silly if said person could not enjoy one of their favorite recipes even though it does not have any ill effects on them.
posted by dysh at 3:10 PM on February 1, 2013

Lotsa generalisations above by people who have not bothered to check their assumptions: More alcohol remains in cooked food than most people assume (and that cite in the wiki is solid), it certainly does not completely "burn" off.

To put this in context, like the bread quote above; alcohol is typically not used in food anywhere close to the quantities you drink. However, given your lack of clarity about the test, I think what would be kind of silly would be risking one of their favourite recipes when such a vast panoply of alcohol-free dishes exist. Presumably this state is not permanent, after all.

It would be easier to guestimate risks if you told us what the dish/cooking method was, of course.

Other links: Alcohol in food - can it take you over the limit?
Does alcohol really burn-off in cooking (the tables in this one may help you).
posted by smoke at 3:29 PM on February 1, 2013

It seems like the wisest course your friend can take is to talk to whoever is requiring him to take this test, and simply ask them. There are all types of tests one might be given with different limits, so the specifics of this test are what you need to know.

Also - since the beer in this bread recipe is presumably just used for flavoring, how about replacing it with a non-alcoholic beer...not great for drinking, but might be fine for imparting that 'hoppy' flavor to the food.
posted by rainbowbrite at 3:58 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The recipe in question requires baking about half of one beer for about 30 minutes, stirred into the batter. According to the chart, that leaves 35% of the alcohol. When I plugged that information into several blood alcohol level calculators, taking into account the person's height and weight, they all came up as negligible, and some as 0.0%. That's assuming one consumes the entire loaf (and as much as said person may want to, I will not allow it, as I want some too!)

I may indeed try a non-alcoholic beer just for kicks, but as of right now, I am no longer concerned about the bread. Thanks so much for your help!
posted by dysh at 4:02 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the person consuming the bread has no moral or other objections to alcohol, they should be fine. I myself am a teetotaler by choice, but have frequently eaten foods cooked with/containing alcohol. On the other hand, a friend of mine is in AA, has been fighting her addiction for some time now, and avoids ANYTHING with ANY amount of alcohol, cooked or not. (She would avoid this bread, even with the alcohol cooked out --- the taste is still there, and that's still bad for her situation.)

So: no, it's not enough booze to get someone even slightly buzzed, but consuming it depends on the individual --- and I certainly would NOT recommend feeding anything like this beer bread without full prior disclosure of the contents to someone who, for religious, moral, medical, recovery or any other reason, avoids alcohol.
posted by easily confused at 6:30 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Non-alcoholic beer" had less than 0.5% alcohol. It isn't alcohol-free.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:59 PM on February 1, 2013

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