If you’re in recovery, getting into cooking can be a great way to ensure that you eat and live well. But, cooking often means experimenting and doing things with food – and alcohol is an extremely common ingredient in food. Whether you’re concerned about cooking yourself or are concerned for your loved one, you probably want to know if alcohol used in cooking affects your sobriety.
That is a good question, because the answer is “maybe”. It actually depends on how long you cook the food and at what heat. If you’re just adding alcohol to a sauce or even a vinaigrette, the old adage that alcohol cooks off isn’t true. Instead, like many other things, alcohol “cooking off” is a complex chemical process.
So, alcohol used in food may actually affect your sobriety. In fact, it can even get you drunk. In addition, there are other reasons why you might want to avoid anything that tastes or smells of alcohol – especially in early recovery. We’ll go over those reasons so you can think about whether or not using alcohol in food is a good idea.
Well, yes and no. The longer you cook food, the more the alcohol will evaporate. But it’s nowhere near as fast or as thorough of a process as most people think. For example, many drinks are actually served hot. E.g., mulled wine which is actually boiled in spices before being served – and it still gets people drunk. So, how much alcohol is really “cooked off”. That depends on the heat, the duration of cooking, and some other, more unpredictable factors, like altitude.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition retention program had specific research into alcohol retention in food. That research shows that alcohol retention ultimately depends on a wide variety of factors. For example, on average, food cooked for 15 minutes at a rolling boil still contains about 40% of the original alcohol content. After 2.5 hours, it still contains about 5% of the original alcohol content. That doesn’t usually work out to much alcohol per serving of food, but it might be more than you want for your sobriety.
In fact, depending on what type of alcohol you use, retention rates could be even worse. In addition, the research shows average alcohol content per serving of popular dishes, after cooking.
For example, a standard serving of alcohol is usually about 14 grams of pure alcohol. A normal beer, which is about 5% alcohol, is generally about 12.8 grams. A serving of wine (3.5 ounces) is about 9.3 grams. And, a shot of vodka or tequila is likely to be 15.9 grams. Comparatively, some popular dishes with alcohol used during cooking contain:
That might come as a surprise to anyone who thought that alcohol cooks off completely. And, while some people suggest that alcohol might completely vanish from food after about 3 hours of cooking time, there isn’t actually any proof that this effect occurs consistently. Therefore, in any case where you add alcohol to food, there’s a high chance that there’s still alcohol in the food after cooking. While none of them consist of a lot of alcohol – after all, you’d have to eat over a pound of cherries jubilee to get to a single serving, they do contain alcohol. And that may not be something that’s good for your sobriety.
Exposure to alcohol can be important in early recovery. However, it’s important not to practice long-term avoidance of alcohol. Why? When you do eventually run into alcohol, being unprepared for it can cause you to relapse. However, in the short-term, avoiding alcohol is usually a good thing. That’s important, because even the smell of alcohol can result in a relapse. In fact, smells can have more impact on someone’s relapsing than actually trying alcohol.
In one study, people were exposed to things that tasted like alcohol versus smelling alcohol – such as beer in the bottom of a dixie cup – and the latter group were consistently more likely to relapse. That’s because, for most people, submitting to cravings is about the dopamine response – the hormone/neurotransmitter responsible for “wanting” and feeling good about wanting things. That’s easily triggered by smells, which remind most of us of good things and good times – without the added reminder that alcohol is bad for you and has resulted in very bad times.
So, cooking with alcohol can be dangerous for your sobriety by exposing you to the taste and smell of alcohol. That can, in turn, trigger a relapse. That’s one reason why some specialists encourage staying away from even alcohol flavored or things like “bourbon barrel aged syrup” in early recovery.
Eventually, you will have to increase exposure to alcohol so that you can live life confidently and without avoiding places that might have alcohol. However, you should limit that exposure in early recovery, until you’re certain of your stability, your mental health, and your coping mechanisms.
For a healthy person with a good track record of stability and no issues with cravings, there’s likely no issue with putting a bit of alcohol in your food every now and then. For someone in early recovery or who still experiences cravings, that might not be the case at all. Just like with alcohol free beers, even that tiny amount of alcohol can prolong your addiction and reliance on a substance.
Most importantly, if you can’t quit seeking out ways to have alcohol, you probably need treatment and counseling – even if you’ve had it in the past. Part of recovery is being able to recognize when you need help and asking for it, and then making that a recurring process as you continue to move on with your life.
Eventually, the amount of alcohol that’s left in food is limited. At the same time, it isn’t zero and it almost never will be. If you cook a dish for 3+ hours, it’s likely to have very trace amounts of alcohol left. If you flame a dish with brandy, it will have as much as 86% of the alcohol left in it. And, with no way to tell exactly how much alcohol is left in a dish, you could be risking your sobriety every time you cook with alcohol.