Every newbie wine drinker discovers that there’s a learning curve to drinking wine. At the beginning of our wine journey we often favor sweeter white wines and then move on to more complex, drier reds with more nuance. So, after quaffing a few bottles most of us have figured out how to choose a bottle we’d like to drink. But how does one go about choosing a bottle of wine to cook with?
When listed on an ingredient list, wine is most often identified in generic terms such as “1 cup dry white wine”. The cook is left to ponder the many different varietals (types of grapes), price points and how that wine will work with all the other ingredients in the recipe…a not so simple chore.
I generally cook with wines in the $10 range. That is not to say that I’d cook with a wine that I wouldn’t drink. It should be drinkable.
When cooked with food, wine mellows and softens, adding brightness and depth to dishes. Wine is basically composed of acids, tannins and sugars and cooking with wine is not so difficult once you understand its role in the dish. Wine is most often used as a marinade, as a liquid in a braise or to flavor a dish at the end of cooking.
I prefer to use wine and broth when simmering beef, chicken or vegetables to tenderness. The acid and sugars add flavor and when cooked for an hour or more the wine changes from astringent and thin to a deep, rich flavor. I also marinate beef, pork and chicken in wine because the acid in the wine tenderizes and flavors the meat. It’s a good idea to marinate beef overnight but chicken and pork can marinate in as little as one hour and be the better for it. Whether I use red or white wine depends upon the main ingredient. I usually opt for red wines when cooking beef and white wines when cooking chicken, pork and vegetables (but not always). There are no rules here. You should use what strikes you or whatever you have leftover in the last bottle you opened. Try it. It will probably be terrific.
That brings us to the question of the quality level of wine used in cooking. I’d rather drink the good wine than cook with it. The honest truth is that wine changes as it cooks and most of the really charming qualities of wine will be lost while the acids and sugars remain to flavor the other ingredients. So, I generally cook with wines in the $10 range. That is not to say that I’d cook with a wine that I wouldn’t drink. It should be drinkable, of course, or your dish may not be as delicious as it should be. But as a general rule, save the $20 and up bottles for the glass. And never, ever, (promise) cook with “cooking wine”. It’s full of salt and if you’ve ever tasted it, it’s just horrible. Most of the time, the wine I’m cooking with is the wine that is left over in the bottle that I opened the night before. If you aren’t a wineaux like me, you can purchase wine in the little bottles that come in a four-pack. That way you only open what you are going to use in the moment.
The secret to cooking with wine is reduction. Add wine at the beginning of the cooking process and allow it to cook down and be absorbed into the dish. Never add more wine to a dish just prior to serving or it will taste thin and raw.
The biggest mistake home cooks make when cooking with wine is not allowing the wine to cook and reduce so that it no longer tastes raw. Taste your dish at the end of cooking and if it still tastes astringent and sharp or not flavorful and rich, it just needs to cook a little longer. When making beef stew I sometimes remove the meat and vegetables once tender and just boil the liquid until it reduces and tastes more concentrated, then add the meat and vegetables back in, season (salt and pepper make all the difference) and serve. When I make risotto, I add 1/2 cup of white wine to the rice and let it boil off before adding broth or water. That little bit of sugar and acid in the rice make the risotto at the end of the dish taste so much more…hard to say…just more delicious. This is why we cook with wine.
That being said there are some varietals of wine that just cook better than others. On the red spectrum, cabernet sauvignon is a bit tannic and not the best wine for cooking. I opt for a bottle of Petit Syrah, Malbec, Zinfandel or better yet, a red blend when cooking. A red blend usually has well balanced sugars and acids and so works flavorfully when cooking. I have often used a little red from one leftover bottle along with a little from another bottle and it works just fine when cooking. So blend away.
As for whites, I avoid cooking with chardonnay because of its oaky characteristics (though unoaked chardonnay is fine). Most often I find myself using a sauvignon blanc when cooking with white wine. It has nice acidity and sugar and flavors most dishes perfectly. Avoid sweet whites when cooking as they are just sweet and don’t offer up the acidity necessary to brighten the dish. Sweet wines are best left for dessert.
Which brings us to finishing a dish with wine and this is where the sweets come in. One of the most charming desserts is fresh berries or melon with white wine. Just drizzle some sauternes or sweet sparkling white wine over seasonal berries and serve with a little glass on the side. It’s simple and tasty as well.
Basically there are a few general rules to cooking with wine but you should always feel free to go with the flow and follow your instincts. Drinking wine is fun and it should be fun to cook with it as well. To make it easier (and therefore more fun), follow these simple guidelines.
- Choose the same type of wine to cook in the dish that you would serve alongside the dish. If serving Beef Bourguignon use a red wine from Burgundy, France or a pinot noir from Washington State. If marinating beef kebabs to cook on the grill for a Saturday night on the patio with friends, use the same Napa zinfandel or Malbec that you are going to drink.
- Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. And remember, friends don’t let friends cook with “cooking wine”.
- Avoid cooking with wines with heavy oak. These include many cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays. The best wines for cooking are sauvignon blanc for whites and red blends, zinfandels, petit syrah and Malbec for reds.
- The secret to cooking with wine is reduction. Add wine at the beginning of the cooking process and allow it to cook down and be absorbed into the dish. Never add more wine to a dish just prior to serving or it will taste thin and raw.
- Leftover wine can be refrigerated for a few days and still be drinkable. After that you may not be as tasty to drink but it will still be good to cook with for up to one week.
- Cooking eliminates most of the alcohol in wine, especially if simmered in a stew for an hour or so.
- Perhaps the most important tip is to cook with wines that you’d like to drink. Whatever is delicious in your glass will be delicious on your plate. Bon appètit!