During pregnancy, you might have wondered if you can eat dishes cooked with alcohol. There’s nothing like settling down to a lovely meal of penne a la vodka, or perhaps beef bourguignon or a traditional coq au vin before thinking: whoah, hang on a second – all these dishes contain alcohol!
Several desserts do too, so what’s safe and what isn’t? I decided to find out.
Can I Eat Food Cooked With Alcohol When I’m Pregnant? Pregnant women can safely eat most dishes cooked with alcohol, as alcohol is significantly reduced during most, but not all cooking methods. A small number of foods containing alcohol (particularly desserts) are best avoided in pregnancy.
There are so many dishes with alcohol in, I decided to address them all together in one place so you can check if you can safely eat them in pregnancy. I’ll also explore the science of ‘cooking out’ alcohol in food.
Does Alcohol Always Get ‘Cooked Out’ of Food?
Different cooking methods result in differing amounts of alcohol remaining in the food when it’s served. Alcohol doesn’t always get ‘cooked out’, in fact, 100% removal of alcohol is rare. Each method and the resulting alcohol content is shown below:
|Flambé (Setting fire to neat liquor e.g. crepes Suzette)
|2-3 minutes (until flames have died down)
Before you freak out about these statistics, remember that you’re usually not starting with a high alcohol percentage to begin with, and the remaining alcohol is dispersed throughout the dish.
For example, if you made a sauce with 12% ABV wine in it, this would be reduced to a concentration of no more than 2 – 2.5% an hour later, and sauce portions are usually small.
The University of Copenhagen researched this topic in 2017. In the results, Postdoc Pia Snitkjaer pointed out that 100ml of sauce with 2% alcohol volume is the equivalent of a tiny 2ml of alcohol per serving, and says the amount is so small “a pregnant woman would also be able to handle it” (source: Journal of Food Chemistry).
In the same set of experiments, it was found that leaving a loose lid on a dish during cooking helped alcohol to evaporate faster. Even if it’s a 14% bottle of a gutsy red wine going into a coq au vin, the resulting alcohol left in the food is not significant enough to warrant avoiding the dish in pregnancy.
Most people don’t know that some foods have low levels of alcohol in them to begin with, especially if they are fermented. For example, soy sauce is about 2% ABV (source: Kikkoman) and orange juice can have around 0.5% depending on how long it’s been open. These trace amounts are usually no cause for concern in pregnancy.
It’s understandable that pregnant women worry about ‘accidentally’ consuming alcohol in food, as it’s one of the major things to avoid.
Marsha Leen-Marshall, a teratology educator for the Pregnancy Risk Line at the Utah Department of Health, was quoted in the Daily Herald confirming that pregnant women shouldn’t be alarmed by consuming alcohol in cooked food.
She said: “The small amount of alcohol left in cooked foods or alcohol used in some desserts has never increased the risk for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or caused Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”
How to Minimize the Alcohol Content of Food
If you’re cooking a recipe at home and want to use a bit of alcohol for flavor and body, but want to keep the overall alcohol level down, here are some tips:
- Avoid using a slow cooker. Due to the lower temperatures in slow-cooking, the alcohol doesn’t get as much chance to cook out. Adapt the recipe for the oven or stovetop, where it can simmer, rather than just bubble.
- Add alcohol at the start of the cooking process, which is traditional anyway when making a sauce, for example. Avoid adding alcohol towards the end of cooking as it won’t have any chance to ‘cook off’, and will probably not help the taste of the final dish.
- If you’re cooking a casserole or similar dish in the oven, place a lid loosely over the food as it cooks. This helps further evaporation of the alcohol, and slight dilution of the dish due to the water condensing off the lid. If the dish/sauce gets too thick, add a little water.
- Even small amounts of alcohol can add body and depth to a dish, so you can reduce the entire recommended amount in a recipe. For example, if you were braising beef in red wine, use half wine and half beef stock instead.
- If you want to try to avoid cooking with alcohol altogether, use substitutions such as tomato juice, apple juice, aromatic broths or stocks. A splash of balsamic or apple cider vinegar will add the acidic touch that wine does.
- When eating out, ask how the dish was cooked and how much alcohol is used in the recipe, if you’re concerned. Most restaurants can cater to those not consuming alcohol, not just in pregnancy, but for medical or health reasons.
Eating out when you’re pregnant doesn’t have to be difficult – in fact, we have written this article on eating at restaurants when you’re pregnant, to help you out!
Which Food Containing Alcohol Should I Avoid in Pregnancy?
As discussed, there’s no reason to avoid cooked dishes containing alcohol – but the key word here is ‘cooked’. There are some dishes, particularly desserts, that contain neat alcohol that isn’t cooked out – sometimes lots of it. Some of these are addressed below.
If you’ve just had one or two of these dishes throughout pregnancy, there’s no cause for concern. It’s the equivalent of taking a cheeky sip of your friend’s cocktail. Not great, but not terrible either, and not an amount that will harm your baby, as a one-off event.
However, I’m listing some heavier-on-booze dishes here so you know not to regularly consume them when you’re pregnant:
- Bananas Foster – when made with a rum flambé in the traditional way, a lot of alcohol (up to 75%) will remain in the dish. If you’re not making it yourself, ask for a minimal amount of rum to be used in the recipe.
- Rum Baba (also known as Rhum Baba) – these little cakes are soaked in a syrup made from rum. If making them yourself, use rum flavored extract instead (it still contains a little alcohol, but far less than neat rum). If you’re eating out it’s likely the syrup will have been made in advance so there’s probably little opportunity to ask for one without so much rum in it.
- Rum Balls (or similar truffles, e.g. champagne) – as these aren’t cooked, the alcohol remains at the same level as it was added to the recipe. Like alcohol-filled chocolates (below), it’s a small amount, only significant if eaten in large quantities. You might be interested in reading this article about eating chocolate safely in pregnancy, too.
- Crepes Suzette – like Bananas Foster, the flambe method means that a lot of alcohol remains in/on the dish after the flames have died down. Use less alcohol or ask for it to be minimized if you’re ordering it in a restaurant.
- Bombe Alaska – this is a baked Alaska, topped with a hard liquor like rum or whiskey, and then flambéed. As with all flambéed dishes, most of the alcohol will remain, so ask for less to be used where possible.
- Christmas Pudding / Plum Pudding – traditionally served with brandy or similar spirit poured over and ignited. Again, there’s no reason to avoid flambéed dishes, just eat them in moderation and use less alcohol if you can.
- Cherries Jubilee – another flambéed dish! (can you see a pattern, here?). Kirsch is the traditional liquor used, so use it sparingly or ask for a smaller amount when eating out.
- Liquor/Liqueur Chocolates – these come in all forms, with varying alcohol content. However, they usually contain high ABV spirits/liquors like whiskey, so should be restricted to one or two, tops. Better yet, save them until after the baby is born and treat yourself then, as they keep a long time. There’s a separate article here all about the kinds of chocolate you can eat when you’re pregnant.
- Sorbet with alcohol in – sorbet tends to have more alcohol if that’s its main flavor. From tequila to ‘cocktail flavored’ like a mojito, the alcohol remains in the sorbet and is only diluted by the ice. If you’re going to have an alcoholic sorbet, have a very small portion and avoid eating it often.
- Alcohol flavors in ice cream (like Bailey’s or rum and raisin) tend to have smaller amounts of alcohol because otherwise, the ice cream won’t set properly. Because the amounts of alcohol are usually very small, so it’s safe to eat in moderation. Avoid sauces or neat alcohol-pour overs. You can also read all about the safety of ice cream in pregnancy here, too.
- Marinated/preserved fruit (e.g. maraschino cherries, peaches in brandy) – the alcohol content of these types of preserves vary in alcohol content and quality. Sometime’s it’s neat booze, sometimes just a flavored syrup. One or two pieces of marinated fruit is probably all right, however most of the alcohol will be in the syrup, so avoid having too much.
- Alcoholic Affogato – affogato means ‘drowned’, and the Italian dessert is usually a scoop of gelato ‘drowned’ in a shot of espresso. Alternative versions ‘drown’ the ice cream in amaretto or similar liqueurs, and as it’s essentially a neat alcohol shot, these are best avoided.
Many desserts with booze in also contain caffeine. Get the lowdown on safely drinking decaf when you’re expecting.
- Grasshopper Pie – as this is a ‘no-bake’ recipe usually containing Creme de Menthe (a mint liqueur), the alcohol remains in the cake and is not cooked. If it’s a small amount of alcohol dispersed through a large pie, it’s probably going to be minimal. Use less if making it yourself, and ask about the alcohol if ordering it from elsewhere.
Pregnancy-Safe Dishes Containing Alcohol
For the avoidance of doubt, many popular dishes containing alcohol (that are often queried by pregnant women) are listed below. All these dishes are safe to eat in pregnancy, as the alcohol levels are usually minimal in the finished dish.
Of course, if you’re cooking yourself, you can adjust the alcohol level and use even less, if you choose to.
- Alcohol in desserts – many of these are covered in the section above, if they’re not cooked and contain neat alcohol. Many cakes, ice creams, cheesecakes and other desserts (like Tiramisu) that contain alcohol have it in such small amounts, it’s not significant enough to avoid in pregnancy.
- Alcoholic sauces – e.g. pasta (or penne) a la vodka, white or red wine sauce or gravy, whiskey infused custard, chocolate sauces with rum, brandy, etc. are usually low on alcohol, and serving sizes are small. They’re all safe to eat in moderation, in pregnancy.
- Wine-based dishes or recipes with wine added – e.g. marsala (usually chicken), cacciatore, Beef bourguignon, Coq au vin, Cioppino, any food braised in red or white wine, risotto, or any champagne sauces are usually low enough in residual alcohol that they’re safe to eat when you’re pregnant.
- Cognac or brandy in food e.g. lobster or other seafood bisque, French onion soup, or meat flambeed before braising should all contain low enough alcohol levels to be safe.
- Marinades – almost every type of alcohol has been used in a marinate at one time or another. Whether it’s beer, tequila, wine, or other alcohol, the marinade is usually discarded before cooking the meat in question, so the alcohol levels will remain very small. The finished dish is fine to eat in pregnancy, if cooked all the way through.
Need a guide to BBQ or grilled meat when you’re pregnant? There’s a complete guide here.
- Meat cooked with hard liquor or spirits – such as bourbon or whisky (e.g. ribs) or BBQ sauces are all safe to eat in pregnancy as the alcohol levels will be small. Always have meat that is thoroughly cooked in pregnancy, with no pink. This may be harder to tell through a sauce or marinade, so bear that in mind.
- Food cooked with beer – e.g. beer can chicken, steak and ale stews or pies, beer-battered food such as fish, welsh rarebit, and so on. The amount of beer used in the recipe is usually small, and as beer is often lower in alcohol than wine or spirits, the finished recipe should contain minimal levels of alcohol, so these dishes are OK to eat if you’re pregnant.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I hope this article puts your mind at rest when trying to avoid ‘accidentally’ consuming food with alcohol in it during pregnancy.
If you’ve had a slightly boozy dessert or a rich red wine stew, it’s likely that the alcohol levels are so small, they’re not harmful – so don’t panic, and continue to moderate your intake where possible.