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You’ve probably heard that it’s no big deal when a cake recipe calls for some rum, because all the alcohol will just cook right off! Well, that's only partly true.

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Olivia: You’ve probably heard that it’s no big deal when a cake recipe calls for some rum, or you add wine to the gravy for your turkey, because it’ll just boil off. And that’s partially true — some of the alcohol will get cooked out. But usually, not all of it. The process of losing the alcohol depends on a few factors, so you can’t assume that it’ll all be gone by the time the dish is done cooking.

It makes a lot of sense that alcohol would evaporate out of food that’s being cooked, since ethanol, the drinkable kind of alcohol, has a fairly low boiling point — just around 78.5 degrees Celsius. Generally, you’d cook food at much higher temperatures than that. But all the alcohol in the dish doesn’t just evaporate as soon as it hits its boiling point. It takes time. You’d have to boil a typical can of beer, for example, for 30 minutes to make it nonalcoholic. Plus, different recipes call for different cooking styles and even different cooking utensils. That all makes a difference.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers tested different recipes to see how long the booze stuck around. When they boiled a sauce with alcohol in it, then removed it from heat, it still had 85 percent of the alcohol in it. On the other hand, a pot roast simmered at 85 degrees Celsius for two and a half hours retained only about six percent of the alcohol. So both heat and time can contribute to the burn off when you’re cooking on a stove-top.

But there’s another factor, too. The researchers did a few tests where they simmered orange burgundy chicken at 85 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes in two different sized pans. And there were huge differences in the amounts of alcohol left over.

One pan was 30 and a half centimeters in diameter, and the other 25 and a half. The researchers didn’t state the depths of the pans in their paper, but the pans probably heated the food in similar ways. Basically, the main difference was that the chicken dishes had different surface areas that were exposed to the air in the room.

And the wider pan, with more surface area, seemed to help more alcohol evaporate — retaining around 10% instead of around 60%. So if you’re still tempted to cook with alcohol, don’t be surprised if you wind up a little bit tipsy after dinner. If you want to avoid putting alcohol in a dish at all, maybe stick with a flavor substitute, like a juice, syrup, or extract.

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