Cooking with wine doesn’t have to be complicated. Here we’ll outline some guidelines you can use when choosing a wine to cook with. We’ll dispel some myths, discuss some terminology and touch on some general rules to use when cooking with wine.
Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink, right?
“Cooking wines” are generally considered bad because they are generally sub-par wines that have salt added. With salt added, they don’t need to be sold as government regulated “wine”. But wine is an ingredient – and just as we wouldn’t cook with soggy lettuce or of smelling meat, we don’t want to cook with a wine that tastes bad. This even applies to wine that’s gone bad in your cabinet (remember when you used wine six months ago and the remaining half-bottle got banished to the cabinet until ‘next time’?). Stale and vinegar-like wine generally doesn’t make for a quality ingredient.
And here’s the real kicker: Sometimes the wines we like to drink *most* are the least appropriate for cooking. That big, oaky and tannic Cabernet that everyone likes? When you cook with it, it will amplify those intense flavors and could throw your meal out of balance. Cooking with Chardonnay? It may not have enough flavor to really make much of a difference in your meal. These are all things to consider.
The flavor of the wine makes a difference.
Wine is complex enough to have schools, books, movies and entire people’s lives dedicated to tasting it. When using wine as an ingredient, we know that the differences from wine to wine will have some effect on the flavor in our final meal. After all, garlic and cinnamon have hugely different qualities and can change your dish’s flavor dramatically. So isn’t it natural to expect wines that taste hugely different to also have different effects on our meal’s flavor?
But if you’re like most people, there’s very little time left in the day after school, work, and family to study how this or that wine will affect your cooking.
Let’s try to break this down a little bit. We’ll start with some terms that might be helpful:
Acidity / Brightness - This refers to a wine’s vibrancy, crispness or tartness. Imagine lemon juice, which is high in citric acid (derived from citrus). Grapes have a similar acid in them called tartaric acid, and some wines have more acidity than others.
Acidity can complement, enhance or add “life” to certain foods; think White meats and seafood. In general, anything that you could could see adding a little bit of lemon juice to would also be enhanced by a high acid or bright wine.
White wines are generally brighter or more tart than reds, but red wines can also be high in acidity. But, for example, a Sauvignon Blanc would probably be a better choice for seafood, for example, because of its brightness.
Complexity – This is a very general term that refers to how much is “going on” in the wine. The flavors you get in the wine are generally not too far off from the flavors you’ll end up getting in your final dish. If your wine just has a plain old “wine flavor”, you’re going to get “wine flavor” in your meal. However, if your wine has nice peach and pear notes, or black olive and truffle, or even fresh strawberries, you’re going to get “wine flavor” *plus* that other tasty stuff. The flavors will add overall complexity to the flavor profile of your meal.
Reduction – A reduction is a process whereby you boil off the alcohol and water in wine and reduce the overall volume. You are left with the “essence” of the wine and any flavors that you perceived before will be concentrated and amplified. This goes for both good and bad flavors. Bitterness is a tricky one because it can oftentimes be a function of the alcohol in a wine – and because the alcohol evaporates, the bitterness might very well disappear with it.
Reducing wine is super easy. Pour a measured amount in a pot or pan and bring it to boiling then reduce the heat to the point that it is steaming. By doing this slowly, you leave more flavor in the reduction because less gets “blown out” with a vigorous boil.
*Very important* Leave the lid *off* the pot or pan as you reduce! You want the water and alcohol to evaporate, not hit the lid of the pan and drip back inside. By leaving the pan off, the water and alcohol dissipates into the air.
And of course, don’t over-do it. Taste the reduction as it steams. The flavors can easily become too amplified and too concentrated! If you over-do it, add more wine and continue the reduction.
Deglazing – When you cook a piece of meat in a pan or pot, you’ll usually leave tasty bits of charred meat, and a concentrated soup of fat, oil and juices (also called the “fond” – which means “essence” in French). By pouring an acid such as wine or lemon juice over the fond, these bits can be dissolved to create a base to a wonderfully flavorful sauce.
Dry Wine – This refers to how much residual sugar is left in the wine after fermentation. Full dry wines have very little residual sugar (or sweetness) and medium dry wines have slightly more sweetness.
Fortified or sweet wines – This refers to wines with a large amount of residual sugar or sweetness. Be careful – these wines pack lots of flavor and should be used sparingly!
Some general rules to use when cooking with wine:
Before you cook with a wine, taste it. Try to grab some descriptors. Is it acidic and bright? Fruity? What kind of fruity? Is it sweet? Dry?
Once you have an idea as to the flavor, imagine the dish you are going to cook. Will these flavors complement it? Try to get a feeling for what the wine will add to the meal.
Don’t forget, if the wine is cooked for any amount of time, the liquid will reduce and the flavors will become amplified. As such, don’t forget to take this into account when you imagine how the flavors will affect your meal.
Before using wine as an ingredient, you’ll want to simmer off the alcohol. If you are going to be cooking a sauce for a long time, the alcohol will have time to evaporate on its own. However, if you will be simmering the sauce for a short time, you may want to consider simmering the wine by itself for about five minutes before adding it to the food. You can smell the alcohol as it boils off. The “burn” in your nose as you inhale will be gone when the alcohol has evaporated.
Tips and tricks:
In “The Wine Lover’s Cookbook”, by Sid Goldstien, we found a couple of tips that might be helpful:
1. If a white wine reduction is too tart, you can add a little bit of salt to balance it. Sugar or honey will have the same effect on a red wine reduction.
2. Braising meats and vegetables in wine for long periods of time serves to tenderize the meat and also lends it an incredible flavor!
3. Use fortified or sweet wines more sparingly than dry wines.
It is our hope that this quick little primer will help you as you cook with wine. Don’t forget, cooking with wine doesn’t have to be complicated. And practice makes perfect. Get some wine and cook with it – learning as you do. Cooking with quality wine will before long be as easy as cooking with spices from your cabinet!