Video: How to get drunk by eating food
I LOVE cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.
Ah, the old ones are the best. But here’s an oldie that is well past its sell-by date: if you cook with wine, all the alcohol is “burned off” by the heat.
When I started telling people about my plan to see if I could eat myself drunk, I heard this piece of kitchen folklore again and again. And no wonder: it seems so plausible. The boiling point of ethanol is about 78.5 °C, significantly lower than the boiling point of, say, a casserole. So if you add wine to a hot pan, the alcohol evaporates.
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Not so. In 1992, a team of food scientists at the University of Idaho put this old chestnut to the test. They created several different booze-laden recipes, each with a different method of adding alcohol, and tested how much was left at the end. The answer ranged from “not much” to “most of it” – but all the recipes, including a casserole cooked for two-and-a-half hours, retained some alcohol.
This got me thinking: is it possible to get drunk only by eating things? If I ate a helping of, say, coq au vin followed by peaches in brandy, could I get pie-eyed? Not falling-down drunk, but legally drunk, which in England means being over the drink-drive limit of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, or a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 per cent (see map).
Herein lies the serious side of my experiment. If cooked foods retain alcohol, people need to be careful – especially around Christmas. If a helping of casserole or a slice of Christmas cake contains even a few millilitres of alcohol, then eating it may be enough to push a careful but not totally abstemious driver onto the wrong side of the law.
The first thing I had to find out was how much I needed to drink to get over the limit. So I bought a breathalyser and set to work.
For my first attempt I went to the pub, drank a pint of lager (5 per cent alcohol by volume), went back to my desk and waited. My breathalyser advises waiting at least 30 minutes before using it so the alcohol has cleared from your mouth, or else it upsets the reading. Half an hour later, I tested myself; the reading was 0.07 per cent, just below the limit.
The next day, I bought some beers on my way home and drank one before dinner. Half an hour later I breathalysed myself and found I was unfit to drive, with a blood alcohol level of 0.09 per cent – a bit of a surprise because I had drunk less than the day before. But other circumstances, such as food consumption, the environment in which you drink and even your mood can influence the rate at which the alcohol is absorbed. I drank another couple of beers just to make sure, but forgot to test myself again because I was watching reruns of Man v. Food.
In the end, I calculated it would take around 25 millilitres of alcohol (2.5 units) in liquid format to push me over the drink-drive limit. Would that also hold for alcohol in food?
It quickly became clear that I could do it the easy way or the hard way. The easy way would involve a lunch of vodka jelly, liqueur chocolates and other things that are really just booze masquerading as food. The hard way would involve cooking, and then eating, a lot of food with quite low levels of alcohol in it. I chose the hard way.
My colleagues, who I turned to for menu suggestions, weren’t much help. Most said “don’t bother, the alcohol will all have burned off” (where have you been?). Lots of them came up with items on the banned list. Vodka gazpacho sounded promising until I realised that it is basically a Bloody Mary and hence not food. One colleague told me about a Jamaican cake called “black cake” that is apparently so potent it can knock out a horse, but it took too long to make.
And so I asked Google. Google was really helpful. It led me, among other things, to a study carried out in 2011 that tested various dishes for alcohol retention and, helpfully, included a recipe for fish simmered in white wine. My search also alerted me to the idea of flambéing chorizo, and led to a recipe for a cake so boozy that you could probably use it as an incendiary device.
The final menu (see below) was designed to deliver about 30 millilitres of alcohol; I was confident of making it over the line as long as I could manage to eat everything – though I bought a box of liqueur chocolates just in case.
Did I make it? Yes and no. The starter instantly tipped me over the drink-drive limit. That fits with the surprising finding that one of the least efficient methods of getting rid of ethanol is flambéing, with 75 per cent left after the flames go out. Although the potent effect may also have been because I breathalysed myself too soon, when my mouth was still awash with brandy.
After the main course I was still over the limit, though less so. According to the fish study, cooking the dish this way retains around 30 per cent of the alcohol. That’s because alcohol forms what is called an azeotropic mixture with water, in which the vapour has the same alcohol/water ratio as the liquid. In other words, boiling the mixture doesn’t change the ratio – so it is impossible to boil the alcohol off completely. The dish should have added to my previous tipsiness, but perhaps the potatoes washed some of the brandy out of my mouth.
The trifle was another instant lawbreaker, pushing the breathalyser over its detection threshold (which was more than twice the drink-drive limit) and the cake – which in true seasonal style I forced down despite being full – kept it there. I’m not sure whether that was down to alcohol in my mouth or my bloodstream. But I felt distinctly drunk and would not have driven.
I even ate one of the emergency chocolates. OK, two.
Half an hour after finishing, I was hovering around the limit. After an hour I was safely back under it (though I would still have been unfit to drive in many countries because the UK has some of the laxest drink-drive laws in the world). But I think my point has been made: even if you don’t drink any alcohol, food can push you over the legal limit. So if you do have a drink and are expecting to drive home, be careful what you eat. And next time somebody tells you that cooking with wine burns the alcohol off, tell them about the man who ate himself pissed.
Alcohol retained in cooked food
85% If alcohol is added to boiling liquid then taken off heat
70% No heat, stored overnight
Alcohol stirred into mixture then baked/simmered for:
15 minutes = 40%
30 minutes = 35%
1 hour = 25%
1.5 hours = 20%
2 hours = 10%
2.5 hours = 5%
STARTER: Chorizo flambéed in brandy
Alcohol added: 45 ml brandy, 36% ABV
Alcohol retention: 75 per cent
Ethanol consumed: 12.15 ml
MAIN: Fish in white wine
Alcohol added: 180 ml wine, 12% ABV
Method: simmer, 30 minutes
Alcohol retention: 35 per cent
Ethanol consumed: 7.56 ml
DESSERT: Sherry trifle with syllabub topping
Alcohol added: 275 ml sherry, 17% ABV
45 ml brandy, 36% ABV
Method: no heat, refrigerated
Alcohol retention: 70 per cent
Ethanol consumed: approx 6 ml per portion
DESSERT 2: Long Island Iced Tea cake
Alcohol added: 255 ml spirits, 40% ABV
Method: baked, 30 mins
Alcohol retention: 35 per cent
Ethanol consumed: approx 4.5 ml per slice
EMERGENCY LIQUEUR CHOCOLATES
Approximately 0.06 ml alcohol per chocolate
This article appeared in print under the headline “Eat yourself drunk”