Sherry in the mushroom sauce 

Did the alcohol in this really burn off, or do we just think it’s tasty ’cause we’re high on the booze?

We were cooking up a storm of tortellini with wild mushroom sauce the other night. Not that we had tortellini kicking around, but some good old linguine did the trick. And not that the mushrooms were really wild… well, you get the picture.

Just before the sauce was ready to go I took one look and thought, eeeuh, that’s way too thick. The main liquid ingredient is Marsala wine, not that we… oh, forget it.

Anyway, we were using a pretty nice sherry. But just before splashing in more to thin the sauce my sous chef yelled, no, no, it won’t have time to burn off if you add it now, you swine (my sous chef is far from insouciant at times). So I applied my usual culinary strategy and just slipped it in when he wasn’t looking. We all thought it was pretty delicious nonetheless, but maybe that was because we’d been sipping the sherry throughout the prep.

In all fairness to my sous chef, that’s not the first time I’ve added some form of alcohol or another to a dish fairly late in the game and wondered the same thing myself. On occasion, we’ve also inadvertently sent dinner guests who happen to be alcoholic scurrying into the kitchen when they’ve spied us refining one dish or another with dashes of this or that from various bottles of booze.

I’d be among the first to proclaim that alcohol has a cherished place in the kitchen. I’m known to be quite liberal with the Cointreau bottle around fresh sliced strawberries, even on ridiculously early mornings. And the only time I was on a team that almost won a chili cook-off, right in Village Square I should note, we juiced our way into second place adding, no lie, about a six-pack of beer into the pot. But, hey, it was good beer, at least the judges must have thought so, and we added it gradually before reducing it over hours of cooking time.

At home, we’ve always blithely reassured guests fearful of any alcohol slipping into dinner, whether they be alcoholic or not – apparently there are varying degrees of sensitivity as to whether seven-year-olds should be enjoying spaghetti sauce nursed into full bloom with red wine. Oh, don’t worry, all the alcohol has burned off, we pipe, pouring ourselves another glass.

But has it?

While commonly-held wisdom is that booze used in cooking burns off after simmering some pronounced length of time – what is it, 10, 20 or 30 minutes in your household? My mom says about 40 – I was quite happy to learn a little more nuanced take on the subject from Robert J. Wolke’s excellent book, Kitchen Science Explained: What Einstein Told His Cook .


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