When making last week's Thanksgiving dinner, I added wine four times: I included a cup of white wine when making chicken stock for my cream of mushroom soup. I used two cups of white wine, along with a stick of melted butter, to baste my turkey. I emptied the remains of a bottle of red table wine (I think it was a Chianti) into my roasting pan to deglaze it before making gravy. And I had added a scant tablespoon of ruby port to my cranberry conserve.
Wine often finds its way into my cooking. Usually it's to deglaze a pan to make a quick sauce or to scrape up the flavorful fond of browned meat or poultry before moving on to the slow cooking of a stew or daube. But I also use red wine to marinate flank steak and add to the braising liquid for short ribs of beef; I use both white or red wine to start the stirring of a risotto; I poach pears with it; I love a drizzle of sherry in gazpacho; Sometimes I'll add a cup of white wine to my tomato sauce before reducing it. There are dozens of other ways wine can become a favorite ingredient.
Wine serves several purposes in cooking, not always the same for every dish to which we add it. First, it adds flavor. Wine is an acidic and complex product and its flavor will depend upon where its grapes were grown, the quality of the vintage, the type of varietal, how the wine is made, and other variables. When added to food as it cooks, the wine's flavor itself becomes deeper while it also enhances the other ingredients. Think about red wine that's been added to beef stew or white wine to the fish stock that envelops a bouillabaisse.
Wine also adds acid and this can change a dish's chemistry. I always prefer a risotto to which wine has been added early in the cooking because to my palate it subtly counters the fat -- whether it's butter, oil, or cheese -- enough so that the rice can be tasted and not overwhelmed.
How wine contributes to the taste of our food will depend upon when it's added to a dish. A cup of Zinfandel used to deglaze a pan after sautéing pork chops will add far less flavor to a finished dish than a few tablespoons of a concentrated Madeira glaze basted onto Portobello mushrooms.
Does it all cook off? People who don't drink alcohol for reasons of diet, health or religion, or parents who may not want their children to have food with alcohol can't really be 100% sure. Alcohol evaporates at 178° F. Water evaporates at 212° F. When you add wine to a hot pan and watch it bubble and steam, the alcohol is evaporating and given time and heat, it will seem to completely cook off. But because there are usually other liquids in a dish, like water, that mix with the wine but need more heat to evaporate, you cannot be completely sure that the alcohol is all gone.
If a recipe calls for wine and you wish to make a non-alcohol substitution, you've got lots of choices. In savory dishes you can instead use stock, broth, water, vinegar, clam juice, or sometimes apple juice or cider. In sweet dishes, substitutions can be fruit juices, vanilla (although most extracts have trace amounts of alcohol), coffee, grape juice, and fruit syrups. Non-alcoholic wines are sold but be sure to taste them first and compare their flavor to what a regular wine will add; in most cases one of the above alternatives will be a better choice.
We've all heard the rule -- don't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink. I prefer the guideline attributed to David Rosengarten, the author of Taste and The Dean and Deluca Cookbook, which is: don't use a wine that you wouldn't want to drink and don't use a wine that you really want to drink.
Let's quickly dispense with the product that amazingly is still sold in some supermarkets that's called "cooking wine." Someone must still be buying this junk because otherwise it would have disappeared by now. "Cooking wine" is a very, very low quality wine to which salt has been added. It's foul. And to be never used.
Then there's the other extreme -- cooking with wine that is almost too good. I was recently waiting my turn in a butcher shop and talking with the woman ahead of me who was in a complex brisket transaction. She was buying the beef for a doubling of a wonderful recipe by Marcella Hazan called "Pot Roast of Beef Braised in Amarone Wine" (from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking). As written it calls for 1 3/4 cups of wine, meaning when making a double quantity, the recipe needs a full bottle of what is commonly a $40+ wine.
I've had the huge pleasure of tasting Amarone, the exquisite red wine from the region around Verona, in Italy's north, and I would have neither the heart nor the wallet to pour a bottle of it into a Dutch oven to stew a five pound piece of beef. When I asked if she had considered a far less costly wine, like Amarone's better known and far cheaper cousin (it's the same grape), Valpolicella, she pointedly said she had once done the switch and everyone could tell the difference. I couldn't help but be skeptical, especially since she was buying a brisket to replace the beef chuck that the recipe called for. But for this home cook, the wine was the essential ingredient.
So we have choices. But faced with the universe of wines, how can we successfully choose cooking wines that are within reach and within budget but also add to the flavor of our foods?
Here's a very basic guideline for wines you may want to keep on hand for cooking:
Among white wines, Chardonnay can be buttery. This may work when making a creamy béchamel for a macaroni and cheese or lasagna, but not a great choice when deglazing a pan after sautéing shrimp. When choosing an all-purpose white wine for cooking, a better choice may be either Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, which are crisp and sometimes have a subtle fruit or herbaceous flavor. Perfectly fine ones -- meaning perfect for cooking and nicely drinkable -- can be easily found for less than $10 per bottle. I acknowledge that I am a red and not white wine drinker (with the exception of chalky Sancerre which I love in the summer), so it's my habit to keep a bottle of Pinot Grigio in my refrigerator just for cooking. Once opened I just seal it well and it will keep for months as I use it a half-cup or so at a time. This is what I use when making chicken stock, cooking seafood or chicken, poaching pears, and making risotto.
Choosing red wines for cooking requires a bit more care. Some recipes almost demand a full-bodied wine like a fruity Zinfandel or elegant Barolo. And as with the woman making the Amarone-braised pot roast, matching a recipe that comes from a specific place with its indigenous wine can produce more authentic flavors. Should a boeuf Bourguignon be made with anything but a Burgundy?
So my advice on cooking with red wine has two parts: First, for recipes in which the wine is a major ingredient, buy the wine just for that dish; if the sticker price is higher than you'd like, ask your wine merchant for a lower cost wine from the same area using the same grape (even Burgundies come at all prices).
But second, if you want to keep an inexpensive red wine on hand for such things as marinating a skirt steak or deglazing a pan, look for something that's easily referred to as a table wine. This could be a Pinot Noir (some are innocuous) or Sangiovese blend. Since both my husband and I are partial to drinking red Italian wines, we're always looking for new ones that cost less than $15 a bottle. And then whatever I happen to have on hand for our glass with dinner is what I will use in my cooking. Be aware that if you use a red with with a distinctive flavor, as with a spicy Syrah or big tannic Malbec, this flavor can come forward in your cooking.
Other wines used in cooking are "fortified wines" including Marsala, Madeira, Sherry, Port, and Vermouth. Fortified wines are ones to which more alcohol is added, usually in the form of brandy, followed by a longer aging process. This produces wines that have stronger, more complex, and more distinctive flavors.
The names of these wines are a tip-off to where they're from. Madeira is from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Port is from Portugal. Marsala, named for Sicily's port, is made in Sicily. Sherry, its name derived from Jerez, a region of Spain, is from, you guessed it, Spain. Vermouth, which can be sweet or herbal and slightly bitter, is the exception as it originated in Italy but its name has a German connection.
Some fortified wines can have a very sweet flavor, as with Port, especially ruby Port. Madeira can have a citrus, sour (but in a good way) taste. Sherries range from sweet to dry and all have a slight nutty flavor. And Marsala, which is from Sicily, is notably high in alcohol (17 to 18%) and has a soft, sweet flavor.
So how do we cook with them?
Port makes a wonderful glaze for vegetables or meats as well as the main flavor in a gelée to top a chicken liver paté. When choosing a port for cooking, you'll have a big selection with a wide price range. Tawny port is more oakey and drier, and ruby port is sweeter with a fruitier flavor. If a recipe calls for port and you can't or don't want to buy a bottle just for that dish, a fruity wine like Zinfandel or Syrah are good substitutes.
Madeira's distinctive flavor makes it a match for sauces paired with poultry, to deglaze a pan after caramelizing onions or sautéing chicken livers, or added to a glaze for a fruit tart, especially ones made with acidic berries.
Sherry is used throughout Spanish cuisine but it's also popular in Asian cooking as an alternative to cooking wine in stir fries, to marinade or braise pork, added to consommé and soups, and in gravies and other sauces. Because Sherry comes in a range of flavors, it's usually best to choose either dry or Amontillado which has a medium, nutty flavor. Never use "cooking sherry" -- it's even more foul than "cooking wine."
Marsala is both popular and versatile in cooking. A classic marsala sauce combines the wine with mushrooms and herbs, as in Chicken Marsala. It is also the distinguishing flavor in zabaglione, a sweet egg-based sauce that is exquisite on berries but also a major element in making tiramisu.
Vermouth comes both dry and sweet. Dry vermouth has a notably herbal flavor but can be a substitute for white wine. And sweet vermouth can substitute for Marsala. And then, of course, there are two of our favorite classic cocktails: martinis made with dry vermouth and Manhattans made with sweet vermouth.
Marinades: the acid in wine helps tenderize the meat or poultry, thus letting the other herbs and flavors penetrate whatever is being marinated. In our recipe for Coq Au Vin from Brooklyn city cook David Neibart, the chicken is both marinated and cooked in white wine with an added flame of brandy to make a splendid result.
Reduced Glazes and Sauces: When wine -- regular wine or a fortified wine -- is slowly cooked, both the alcohol and water in the wine evaporate, concentrating the flavors that remain and also thickening the liquid so that it can be brushed onto other foods as they cook. Don't be afraid to simmer or boil wine; it won't curdle or separate.
Poaching Fruit: Pears, quinces, apples and other fruits can be poached in wine to which sugar and spices, like a stick of cinnamon, are added. When the pears are tender, remove them from the poaching liquid and boil the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Fruit poached in white wine will keep its own color; fruit poached in red wine will turn red, which can be particularly beautiful when poaching pears. You can also poach fruit in dessert wine, but in my opinion, it is better to add sugar to a less costly wine and save the far more expensive Sauterne or Moscato to drink with the finished dessert.
Braising and Stewing. The iconic Julia Child recipe for boeuf Bourguignon in Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking calls for three cups of "a young red wine." The recipe is an icon for a reason: it's perfection. If you don't have a copy of this cookbook, its publisher Alfred A. Knopf has published this recipe, along with many comments from home cooks who have made it. We've added a link below.
Deglazing: When meat, fish, poultry or vegetables are seared over high heat, small caramelized bits remain stuck to the bottom of the pan. But these bits, called fond (for "foundation") in French cuisine, have wonderful flavor. Adding a splash of wine to a hot pan will make it easy to scrape these delicious bits off the bottom of the pan to become the basis of a sauce or added to braising liquid. We've added our recipe for how to use white wine to create a piquant pan sauce for sautéed pork chops.
Steaming: The best way to cook little cherrystone clams or a huge pot of mussels is to steam them in white wine. See our recipe for classic Spaghetti Con Vongole that demonstrates the method.
Flavoring: Wine, and especially fortified wines, can add wonderful flavor when added to a dish just before cooking or serving. A splash of white wine to fish as it's wrapped in parchment paper adds moisture and tang. A drizzle of sherry to consommé or gazpacho or red pepper sauce adds complexity. White wine on just cooked potatoes makes the perfect foundation for a classic French potato salad.
If I've emboldened you to cook more with wine but you're still feeling shy about which wines to choose, maybe it's time to get reacquainted with your neighborhood wine store. Plus this time of year, when you may want to invite friends for a glass of holiday cheer, it's good to have a few extra bottles of wine or Champagne on hand. But maybe you want some help to buy something that's wonderful that's also within your budget.
Most big cities have many neighborhood wine stores where we can get attention, education and good values. But it helps if we also have a relationship with a merchant who can guide us through the complex and often intimidating world of wine. I encourage you to shop around until you find a store where you're comfortable and also find a merchant who both knows wine and how to help you make successful purchases.
We found a role model on Manhattan's Upper West Side in Murray Rosen who runs Columbus Avenue Wines & Spirits. Getting to his store on Columbus Avenue at West 96th Street may not be an option for you, but how he thinks about wine and his customers may give you an idea of what you should expect from a good wine merchant. See our link to our podcast conversation with him.