“I love cooking with wine; sometimes I even put it in the food” - Anonymous
Do I love cooking with wine or do I love cooking wine? If you follow this column, that answer
should be fairly obvious. However that question of whether we cook with wine or use cooking
wine in our food may still be as cloudy as unfiltered Chardonnay. I would like to think that we
all cook with wine including also adding it to the food. In other words, the wine we use would
be suitable for putting into our recipes or putting directly into ourselves (okay, maybe into
suitable stemware first then into ourselves). But if you peruse the supermarket aisles, you’ll see
bottles labeled as “Cooking Wine” right there next to the red wine vinegar or worst yet, sitting
next to bottles of table wine in the liquor aisle. Forbid that some unsuspecting soul may
purchase a bottle thinking it’s of drinking quality! That “Cooking Wine” may have started out as
simple table wine but morphed into a salt and preservative laden concoction that’s not really
palatable even in food.
"What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch" - W. C. Fields
When I say that wine used in cooking should also be of drinking quality, I’m not recommending
that you store bottles of the latest vintage of Chateau Lafite Rothschild just for beef stew. Au
contraire mon ami! In fact I’m suggesting quite the opposite. This is where a stash of Two Buck
Chuck comes in handy. Use a cup or two in your next braised beef, pork or chicken, sip a glass
and you won’t even feel guilty for deodorizing your disposal with the rest of the bottle. I
personally look for supermarket sales that don’t break the $5 barrier if I primarily plan on
cooking with the wine. In fact, many of my wines to cook with don’t even have corks.
I usually keep several different types of wine on hand for different types of dishes. A Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah or Zinfandel for heartier braised beef or pork dishes. I also have a Pinot
Noir for cuts that contain a lot of connective tissue like shanks, oxtail and shoulder meat – the
extra acidity in Pinot helps gelatinize the connective tissue.
For lighter dishes or poached seafood, I keep a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio on
hand. This is where cheaper usually is better. Cheaper Chardonnays usually don’t have that
pronounced oaky qualities (wineries can’t afford to use expensive new oak for $5 bottles of
wine). You wouldn’t want to ruin your perfectly poached Copper River Salmon with a oaky
For desserts I always keep a Gerwurztraminer on hand whether it’s for poaching pears or making
a wine based gastrique to glaze fruit. Fruity red wines like Syrah or Zinfandel are also great
simmering liquid for dried fruit, especially figs to serve with various cheeses or as fruit chutney
for poultry or pork.
The only drawback to using “real” wine for cooking is that the leftovers don’t keep very long.
That’s why “cooking wine” contains a lot of salt. To inhibit microorganisms that oxidizes wine
to vinegar. Of course, you could always add the leftover wine to the chef.
"If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish sherry can bring the dead back to life." - Sir
For wine based spirits that do keep longer, I also keep a bottle of both dry and sweet marsala on
hand. The dry for savory dishes – chicken marsala – and the sweet for desserts – zabaglione. A
bottle of dry fino Sherry also doesn’t hurt to keep on hand. You can use it whenever a recipe
simply calls for white wine and finally, a bottle of sake is perfect for any Asian inspired recipe.
The additional alcohol in these spirits allows it to keep longer than regular wine. Just don’t try
to drink them after two weeks. Drinking use and cooking use are two distinct purposes.
Nan no onore ga
Sakura kana - Anonymous
(Without flowing wine
What good to me are lovely
Cherry trees in bloom?)
What about My Teetotaler Guests?
Any alcohol added to your culinary creations will burn off – as evidenced by dramatic flambé
desserts – but some of the alcohol will inevitably remain in the dish. Why? Because alcohol and
water (which wine is in simple terms) is an azeotrope. No, an azeotrope isn’t the latest crossover
vehicle from Buick. It refers to a mixture of compounds that remains in the same ratio regardless
of distillation time. A mixture of 95.6% ethyl alcohol and 4.4% water boils at a lower
temperature than either compound on its own so you can never totally separate the two. So no
matter how long you simmer that stew, a small amount of alcohol will remain in the final
gravy. But will it result in dining guests getting pulled over by the highway patrol for ESUI
(Eating Stew Under the Influence)? No. Unless you use one bottle of wine to ½ cup broth and
simmer for only 2 minutes, the remaining alcohol shouldn’t be a problem.
Other than re-dissolving those browned bits on the bottom of your pan (concentrated flavor
molecules), the alcohol in wine also helps to extract additional flavor components in your
ingredients. Ever wonder why so many restaurant pastas feature a vodka infused tomato sauce.
Vodka itself won’t do much since it’s essentially flavorless. However, the alcohol in vodka helps
to extract flavor compounds hidden in tomato. Kinda like a turbo charged (or infused) marinara
or Bolognese. That same alcohol in wine can also do the same along with adding additional
flavor compounds not found in vodka.
So the next time you simmer your favorite stew or braised chicken, pork or beef, consider adding
a ½ cup… or two… or three of vino. If it doesn’t enhance your favorite culinary creation, at the
very least the leftover added to the chef will make for one very happy cook.
“Go check with Auntie, make sure the wine is not too sweet, not too rancid, but juuuuust
right” – Rap Reiplinger as Auntie Marialani
Cooking With Wine or Cooking Wine?