Cooking with alcohol is one of the best ways to develop complex, layered flavors in food. Not only does wine and beer add flavor and aroma to the food, but the added acidity alters the food chemistry in interesting and pleasant ways. For example, beer brats -- a summertime favorite -- take on a fuller, earthy flavor and a juicy moistness when they've been boiled in beer prior to hitting the grill. However, special precautions must be made when adding alcohol to food prepared for children.
Reasons for Using Beer as a Cooking Medium
Typically, beer brats are prepared by boiling bratwurst in beer, or a beer and water mixture, and then grilling the sausages until brown. Several different reactions are happening in the beer solution at the same time. First, the acidity of the beer is denaturing the proteins in the sausages’ casing, which will enhance the Mallard Reaction – leading to a deeper browning and fuller development of caramelized flavors in the sausage – and making the casing tenderer. Second, osmotic pressure draws some of the cooking liquid into the brat, infusing the sausage with beer flavor. Finally, as alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the final temperature of the brat will be 10 to 15 degrees lower than that of a brat cooked in pure water, leading to a gentler-cooked sausage.
“Cooking Off” the Alcohol
Considering that the brat will “drink up” some of the beer, not all of the alcohol will cook off. There is no known cooking method that will fully remove added alcohol from food. According to research conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Data Laboratory, different cooking methods retain different amounts of alcohol retained. For example, alcohol added to a boiling liquid retains 85 percent of its alcohol. Foods that has been flambéed or flash-ignited retain 75 percent of their alcohol, and foods stored overnight will see 30 percent of their alcohol evaporated away.
Food for Thought
Most beer brands have an alcohol content of five percent. Considering that a 12-ounce bottle of beer has less than two tablespoons of alcohol and that a bratwurst “drinks” about a tablespoon and a half to three tablespoons of its boiling liquid when cooking, there may not be enough alcohol in the sausage to cause a noticeable effect. In reality, there may be more alcohol in the bun the brat will sit on – because of alcohol production during the bun dough’s yeast fermentation – depending on how long the dough was risen and if the dough is sourdough, than in the brat itself.
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Precautions and Final Thoughts
In the long run, it is unlikely that a beer brat will make a child drunk. However, in serving beer brats, it is important to be a conscientious host. Many cannot consume alcohol – even in symbolic quantities – because of religious or moral reasons. It is important to take into consideration who will be eating the brat before offering it to them.
Follow USDA-recommended safe food handling guidelines: Cook foods to proper temperatures and avoid holding food in the “danger zone” (temperatures between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit) for prolonged periods.
Frederick Reese is an author and political journalist who has covered current affairs, culture and society for various print and online publications. Reese holds a B.A. in art and art history from Colgate University.