Abstract Denitrification in intact sediment cores was measured by the acetylene inhibition technique and compared with the nitrate flux between water and sediment. Less than half of the nitrate-N consumed by the sediment could be recovered as nitrous oxide-N. The low recovery rate of nitrous oxide from intact sediment cores indicated losses of nitrous oxide by diffusion down to nitrate-free sediment layers, where reduction of nitrous oxide may take place. In sediment slurries 100% of nitrate-N could be recovered as nitrous oxide-N as long as the nitrate concentration in the liquid phase was above 10 μM. Nitrous oxide added to nitrate-free sediment slurries was reduced regardless of whether acetylene was present or not. Therefore denitrification may be significantly underestimated by this method.