Health & Wellness
Should Recovered Alcoholics Eat Foods Cooked with Alcohol?
If you have quit drinking or are cooking for a recovered alcoholic, whether you should cook using alcohol can be a confusing and emotional issue. Before pursuing recovery, we hardly paid attention to what foods may have a high alcohol content or might have a taste of alcohol. The party host that unintentionally serves the braised bourbon-based brisket slider to the newly sober dinner guest is even more problematic.
The questions of the pure avoidance of all foods cooked with alcohol or just avoiding certain foods with alcohol in them have been discussed in many 12-step group fellowships for years. The premise of most recovery disciplines is that the alcoholic responds differently when they consume alcohol. That is why many alcoholics refer to alcoholism as a type of “allergy” to alcohol. This is why many sober people are terrified that any food containing alcohol would cause an immediate reaction sending the recovered alcoholic into a “phenomenon of craving” that is outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
Whether to cook with alcohol seems to break into the areas of physical, allergy, taste, and emotional reactions people in recovery have with this issue.
The Physical Allergy Issue
Let’s face it most alcoholics can not tell if foods contain alcohol unless the alcohol is extremely overpowering. If you have been sober for some time, you probably have eaten something that contains a low level or traces of alcohol, and this has not triggered a relapse or created any adverse physical cravings. This could primarily be to the alcohol content per serving. For example, vanilla extract has a very high alcohol level, but eating a cookie made with vanilla extract has a very low or non-existent alcohol level. Still, a tiramisu with a shot of alcohol poured on top of the dessert would contain a high level of alcohol content. The lower the alcohol content per serving, the less physically it might affect you. Although not valid with all types of alcohol, most foods with a higher alcohol content will have a distinct taste of alcohol.
It is a myth that all alcohol burns off in the cooking process, but research does show that if a dish is cooked at the boiling point of alcohol (173 degrees Fahrenheit) for one hour, it can reduce the alcohol content by 25%. Also, the other ingredients added to the recipe reduce the per-serving alcohol content. Aunt Mabel’s huge pot of homemade spaghetti sauce cooked with a quarter cup of wine that has been cooking all day will probably have minimal alcohol remaining. It would probably have no physical taste of alcohol.
The Taste of Alchohol in Food Issue
For most sober people, the taste of alcohol in food is a huge issue. Most sobriety is hard fought for, so the shock that your past favorite beverage is now present in the expensive dish you just ordered with friends in that expensive restaurant is alarming for most in recovery. Taste can be a trigger for relapse and sometimes can bring back memories and create cravings. Sometimes just the smell of alcohol can rattle people in recovery and make you overall nervous. Many sober people report that they can have a strong emotional reaction when tasting or smelling alcohol even after decades sober.
Even foods not cooked with alcohol can sometimes still trigger sober people if it tastes similar to an alcoholic beverage you use to drink. The entire mocktail craze is based on non-alcoholic drinks that taste or have the appearance of something that might have alcohol. These for some sober people can also be triggering, and some sober people feel uncomfortable. Experimenting in sobriety with non-alcoholic beverages before an awkward social situation might make you feel more comfortable before entering into a high-pressure social situation. You will find the right balance for you the longer you are sober.
The Emotional Issue
Let’s face it many emotions pop up when addressing the issue of cooking with alcohol if you are in recovery. For the non-alcoholic, the entire topic probably sounds a bit ridiculous, but to the recovered alcoholic, this is something they have to live with daily. Especially when people are newly sober, the fear of a sudden relapse can be all-consuming. The mental ping-pong of worrying about whether something has alcohol and asking a waiter or host if something has alcohol in it can be very awkward. Having to ask a coworker if the birthday cake has rum in it can be nerve-wracking and blow your anonymity.
The worst part is the overthinking that goes along with possibly eating food that has or tastes like alcohol, which can set you into a spiral of negative thinking and worry. For alcoholics, alcohol was your coping mechanism, and alcohol-related food is a place that can trigger feelings of shame, regret, anger, and confusion. Also, worry that one might have relapsed after unconsciously eating something that contains alcohol. The alcoholic mind is a very powerful thing and can take you on long tangents of obsessive thinking, not to mention dealing with these powerful emotions in front of other people.
Important Note to Non-Alcoholics
If you are a non-alcoholic reading this, you might be wondering how to best approach this issue if it arises. We put together a few helpful suggestions below.
- Please don’t make a big deal out of it. Most people in recovery fully understand that other people can have alcohol, just not them.
- Have options. If you can offer a non-alcoholic option, this is a simple way to let people choose without discussing it with them.
- Do not put the recovered person on the spot. No need to announce to everyone that the person is sober. Nothing makes someone in recovery feel more uncomfortable than being called out in a large group.
- Be patient. Sometimes it takes time for the sober person to practice and set their boundaries regarding food that is cooked with alcohol. Please give them the grace to practice these boundaries without judgment.
- Be a wingman. If you see your sober friend is in an uncomfortable situation, have their back. If you know, something might have alcohol in it or a strong smell of alcohol, just a quick private comment that they might not like that particular food item can be beneficial. This allows them to make choices on their terms and creates less social anxiety.
Finding your comfort zones is the key to achieving the right balance in your recovery. These comfort zones can differ for each person in recovery, which is okay. Recovery is a very personal journey, and alcoholics need to discover their boundaries, triggers, and preferences when cooking with alcohol. The main focus should always be staying sober!
April 13, 2023 at 3:50 am
I have been in recovery a long time. I’ve been called a dinosaur…lol…
I well remember this being a HUGE issue for me in early sobriety. To a certain extent it still is something to which I pay attention. I am also a very sensitive palate and can taste alcohol when it’s been put in food. Using Aunt Mabel’s sauce as an example is interesting in that no one is going to boil sauce at all let alone an hour or several (175 degrees/hour = 25% reduction).
If you’ve had Aunt Mabel’s sauce forever and then have it cooked w/o the wine (even 1/4 or 1/2 cup) chances are you will notice, hey this tastes different.
If food is cooked with hard alcohol there will be some left in the dish. If it’s in a sauce in a restaurant there is a very good chance that alcohol is used in an individual portion, and that just might be an issue.
I side on the just don’t go there. It’s so much safer than playing Russian Roulette with sobriety. It’s hard enough.