A few weeks ago, I read an article about blood alcohol levels in Wine Review Online by Dr. Michael Apstein. He’s a gastroenterologist practicing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The article looks at the relationship between higher-alcohol wines and blood alcohol level.
Being the science geek I am, I really enjoyed it. You know already that I think wine and alcohol are understudied, and we need more pieces like this one. It also led me to a theory of my own about drinking seltzer water while you’re drinking wine, which I’ll talk about down below.
As you’ve probably read here and elsewhere, alcohol levels in wine have increased substantially over the past decade. Many think (especially after a few glasses of wine) that an increase in alcohol content from 13 to 15 percent isn’t significant. It certainly doesn’t sound like much of a difference. But a glass of 15% alcohol wine actually contains 15% more alcohol than a glass of 13% alcohol wine. As Dr. Apstein explains, there are limits to how much alcohol the average person’s body can process in a given period of time. And because of the way our bodies process alcohol, 15% more alcohol consumed in a glass of wine means more than a 15% increase in blood alcohol level above what it would be from drinking the lower-alcohol wine.
I think everyone ought to read this article because it sets out – as clearly as I’ve ever seen – how alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream. It’s important to understand the process so that you can make informed choices about drinking.
Here are the basics. As you drink an alcoholic beverage, an enzyme in the stomach begins breaking down the alcohol. The amount broken down depends on (1) the amount of the enzyme you have in your stomach, and (2) the length of time the alcohol stays in your stomach. More time means more breakdown. The contents then leave the stomach and enter the small intestine. That’s where whatever alcohol is left gets absorbed into the bloodstream. After that, it’s up to the liver to break down the alcohol in your bloodstream, which as we know can impair proper bodily functions in the short term and over time.
The amount of the enzyme in your stomach is beyond your control. It is what it is. So the key to keeping your blood alcohol level down is to make sure the alcohol remains in your stomach for longer. You can do this by eating before or while you’re drinking the alcohol, something we’ve all been told and which we try to do, especially when we have to get ourselves home in one piece.
But what caught my eye in this article was something Dr. Apstein said about champagne and carbonation:
“The rate at which the stomach empties might explain the additional buzz people describe from drinking champagne or sparkling wine. Many had assumed that champagne made people woozy faster because of the setting in which it was usually consumed—quickly, on an empty stomach. But in 2003 British researchers showed that the blood alcohol level is higher after people drink champagne than after they drink the same amount of de-fizzed bubbly. A reasonable explanation is that the carbonation promotes gastric emptying and thereby reduces the time the alcohol remains in the stomach where it can be metabolized.”
After reading this, I wondered if maybe any carbonation would have the same effect. People drink more seltzer water these days, especially since many restaurants now make their own and offer it free to customers, and also with the popularity of home seltzer makers. Would drinking seltzer along with alcohol as opposed to still water make people drunk more quickly?
I called Dr. Apstein to ask his opinion. He told me that the British study didn’t examine the reasons for the higher blood alcohol level from champagne vs. still wine. Carbonation causing the stomach to empty more quickly is his own theory – but since alcohol gets absorbed outside the stomach in the small intestine, and the carbonation was the only difference in the cases in the British study, it makes sense that carbonation would cause the stomach to empty more quickly, at least as a first guess.
He doesn’t know precisely how it happens, but Dr. Apstein said there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people feel less full after drinking carbonated beverages. It might be partly due to carbonation helping to settle the stomach contents a bit, which would make you feel less full. But emptying into the small intestine actually does make the stomach less full, and would allow the alcohol to be absorbed into your bloodstream as the study indicated.
Dr. Apstein confirmed that there wasn’t any reason to think that carbonation in seltzer would act any differently than carbonation in champagne. He gave my theory a tentative stamp of approval. So you heard it here first, folks – if you’re looking to keep your blood alcohol level lower, you could try drinking still water with your wine or other alcohol, instead of seltzer. (And you might want to think about your gin and tonic, too…)
You’ll definitely need the water, although not for the reason you might think. You may have heard that lots of water helps dilute the alcohol in your bloodstream, but that’s not true. Your kidneys are really efficient at getting excess water out of your body quickly, and they don’t touch the alcohol. So you’ll end up with the same situation as without all the extra water and just spend more time in the bathroom. But having more water around can counter the dehydration that alcohol causes, and make you feel a little better the next day. I can’t think why we wouldn’t want that!
Since I’ve just told you to skip the seltzer, I thought I’d give you a recipe with seltzer that would make up for it. But I couldn’t think of one, except for drinks, tempura batter, or desserts. So keeping in the bubbles theme, I turned to champagne instead. (If you’re going to have the bubble effect, it might as well be from champagne anyway.) Christiane Mante, the wife of first vine’s champagne producer, Bernard Mante, is a fabulous cook and gave me a bunch of recipes using champagne. We happen to have a big salmon fillet in the freezer, so I decided to make one of Christiane’s recipes, Salmon in Champagne Sauce. The salmon is baked in champagne, topped with a thickened fish-stock-based sauce that’s fortified with the cooked champagne, egg yolks and cream, then put under the broiler before serving. C’est magnifique!
Christiane’s recipe calls for a whole salmon, which can be difficult to find. So I’ve adapted it for salmon fillet. If you can buy a skinless salmon fillet, that’s fine. But once you’ve done the initial baking with the champagne and then let the salmon rest for a few minutes, you should be able to peel the skin right off before you top it with sauce and broil it.
I’ve long thought that champagne wasn’t used nearly enough as a cooking ingredient, or as an accompaniment to food. The combination of fruitiness and acidity that you find in genuine French champagne is unmatched. Most of the time the actual wine itself isn’t all that important in a recipe, especially ones that cook a long time. But in this one, your total cooking time is pretty short. And you’re going to be left with some champagne since you don’t use it all in the recipe, so it may as well be good! So of course I think you should cook with and serve Champagne Bernard Mante Brut ($32), a blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. And beautiful bubbles — so beware!
One 4-pound salmon fillet, skin on or with the skin removed (you can also use two 2-pound fillets)
3 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups fish stock (I like Kitchen Basics), or a mixture of 1 cup clam juice and 1 cup vegetable stock
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use, plus a little more for greasing the roasting pan
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 cups champagne
2 egg yolks
3 tablespoons heavy cream
You’ll need a roasting pan that’s just a little bigger than the salmon fillet, and that can go in the oven, on top of the stove, and under the broiler. Use a little butter to coat the bottom of the roasting pan. Set the oven rack six inches below the broiler and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the shallots and a little salt and stir to coat. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the shallots cook for 10 minutes. Remove the lid, turn up the heat, and cook the shallots, stirring, until they just start to brown. Spread the shallots in the buttered roasting pan to form a bed for the salmon.
Place the salmon fillet on top of the shallots, skin side up. Pour the champagne over the salmon. Put the pan on the burner and bring the liquid to a boil. Place the pan in the oven and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, basting twice. Check the salmon to see that it’s done to your liking – you may want to undercook it slightly because it will go under the broiler later.
While the salmon is in the oven, make the white sauce. Heat the fish stock in a small saucepan and set it aside. In the same saucepan you used for the shallots, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the flour, a half-teaspoon of salt, and some pepper. Whisk the flour into the butter, and continue to cook, whisking constantly, for 3 minutes. The flour will darken just a little. Add the hot fish stock slowly, whisking all the while. The mixture will come to a boil. Turn the heat to low, and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Set the white sauce aside.
When the salmon comes out of the oven, tilt the pan to spoon out as much of the liquid as possible. Put it into the small saucepan you used before. Cover the salmon fillet with foil to keep it warm, and turn on the broiler. Bring the champagne liquid to a boil and reduce it a little bit. Whisk the hot liquid into the white sauce and let it sit off the heat for a couple of minutes. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and cream together. Add about a half cup of the white sauce/champagne to the egg yolk mixture, and whisk thoroughly. Add this mixture back into the pan with the rest of the white sauce/champagne, whisking constantly. Put the pan over low heat and cook the sauce for a minute until it gets a little thicker. Keep whisking it, and don’t let it boil. Taste it for salt and pepper, then set it aside off the heat.
Take the foil off the salmon. At this point, you should be able to take the skin off easily. Spread the sauce over the now-skinned salmon fillet, and once the broiler is hot, put the roasting pan in the oven. Broil the fish for 5 minutes, maybe a little more, checking carefully to make sure it browns lightly but doesn’t burn. If your broiler is small you may have to move it around to brown the whole thing. Take the pan from the oven and serve the salmon immediately.