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Q: Which wines make good cooking wines?

by David on June 26, 2008

Question from Jason: How do I choose the right wine to cook with?  Sometimes the recipe just says “red wine” or “white wine” and I’m not sure what to do.

Reply: Thanks for writing, Jason!  We just love a man who cooks!  This is a good question because there are so many schools of thought out there. There are those who insist that you cook with wine that’s been open too long or isn’t good for drinking.  And, others will say you need only the best.  Since you asked my opinion, I’ll suggest you shoot for somewhere in the middle.

The wine will be competing with other flavors and, if it’s cooked, you’ve changed its composition so it seems a reckless extravagance to flavor your beef stew with ÆROS®, as wonderful as it would be.

However, keep in mind  that the flavors will become concentrated through evaporation and any flaws or excess tartness will be magnfied. My rule of thumb is that if I don’t want to drink it, then I shouldn’t cook with it. So, the wine doesn’t need to be expensive, but it should be tasty.

I like to deal with a known quantity or taste the wine, first, so I’m familiar with its flavor – after all, that’s the flavor I’m adding to my food, just like adding garlic or spices. So, you might think of the other ingredients and what sort of wine flavors might be a good complement.

At the supermarket you can find a product called “cooking wine”. This is usually a poor-quality wine, to which salt, and sometimes color, is added. It’s likely to be over-priced, and probably not as good as just buying a decent bottle of table wine.

It’s not too surprising that the guidelines that work for pairing the wine with food can translate into good ones for cooking. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If it tastes good with the dish, then why not in the dish? In fact, using the wine you plan to serve in your preparation is a way of helping the wine and food pairing along. Here are some suggestions:

  • Match weight for weight: If the recipe calls for dry, red wine, consider the other ingredients. If it’s a robust dish like lamb shanks, or roast beef, then a full-bodied red like a big Zin or a Cab would be a good choice. If the flavors are more delicate, maybe something more subtle like a Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais style might work better.
  • If the suggestion is dry, white wine, it’s smart to go with something reliably crisp (but not overly tart) like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or any cool-climate dry white.
  • A lot of cooks rely on fortified wine, which is a great idea because the higher alcohol helps it to keep better than table wine, after it’s open. Did you ever notice that Julia Child used dry, white vermouth quite often? Like Sauvignon Blanc, It has an herbaceous quality that can be a complement to the herbs in the dish. Sherry has a wonderful nutty character, so you might think about how that might work with the other flavors. Madeira and Marsala add a caramelized character.
  • Many fortified wines are sweet, so you’ll want to factor the sweetness into the equation. A touch of sweetness can bring out the sweetness of vegetables like onions and bell peppers, if you’re using them. On the other hand, if the wine is quite sweet, the sweetness may be overwhelming after being concentrated during cooking. Avoid Sherry called “Cream Sherry”, unless you want a lot of sweetness – it’s like an Amontillado or Oloroso (those are often good choices) that’s been sweetened.
  • Careful about color! Just imagine how unappealing your chicken breast would look after it’s been soaked in purple wine!
  • And, careful about the alcohol if you have guests who avoid it. They always say that the alcohol cooks off, but not necessarily completely unless the dish simmers for hours. The greater the proportion of other liquids, the longer it will take to evaporate off all the alcohol. For most people, this is inconsequential, because wine isn’t very high in alcohol to begin with and it’s only one ingredient among many. However – it’s good to be aware.

Be sure to check out Colleen’s Kitchen, on our website, because she’s posted over 100 terrific, very do-able recipes, paired with wine. And, many of them include wine in the preparation – quelle surprise! ;-) You’ll probably begin to see a method to her madness!

I hope that helps! Happy cooking!

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