While you’re sipping your favorite wine and pondering what to simmer, stir and serve for dinner tonight, remember that cooking with wine can be a pleasure and an enhancement to good food and a fine meal.
The function of wine in cooking is to intensify, enhance and accent the flavor and aroma of food. Wine has three main uses in your kitchen: as a cooking liquid, as a marinade ingredient and as a flavoring in a finished dish.
Don’t go to extremes with wine! Remember to use care in the amount—too little is inconsequential while too much will be overpowering.
Selecting the Wine
Use only wines in your cooking that you would drink.
So-called “cooking wines,” typically salty with a multitude of additives, are best left on the grocery shelf.
An expensive wine is not always necessary, while a good-quality wine that you enjoy will bring out the best characteristics of your dish.
“If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”
When listed as an ingredient, wine is often mentioned in the most generic of terms. When a recipe states “1 cup of dry white wine” you’re left to wonder “Can I use a $5 wine, or should I go all out for better flavor and use a $25 bottle?”
Here’s what I typically pick when following a recipe or crafting one that calls for wine:
• In a recipe calling for dry white wine, I use a high-quality American Sauvignon Blanc.
• If the dish has spicy flavors, I choose something more aromatic such as a Gewürztraminer or Riesling, perfect for counterbalancing dishes with bold flavors.
• In a recipe calling for dry red wine, I think about the heartiness of the dish. If the dish is long-simmering (beef stew), I choose a hearty red such as a Zinfandel or Petite Syrah. If the dish is lighter, a Pinot Noir will do nicely.
Using the Wine
Use wine in cooking only when it has something to contribute to the finished dish. The wine should simmer with the food, or sauce, to enhance the flavor of the dish. As the wine cooks, it will reduce and become an extract, adding flavors.
When adding wine to a sauce, make sure you allow most of the alcohol to cook off or the sauce may exhibit a harsh, slightly boozy taste.
When is enough enough? As a general rule, after adding the wine, cook the sauce until it reduces by about half, keeping the pan uncovered. While the alcohol burns away, the flavor of the sauce will become more concentrated.
In General Terms
All wines have acid, so when cooking with wine, be sure to use nonreactive cookware (such as stainless steel, enamel cast iron or glass) to avoid discoloration when the acid from the wine hits the pan.
Playing with the Flavors
When you’re ready to begin experimenting with wine and cooking, here are some basics to remember.
Capitalize on these subtle food flavors that often come through in wine...
• White wines have hints of melon, apple, pineapple, pear, citrus, vanilla, caramel, olives and mushrooms
• Red wines hint of berries, peaches, currants, plums, cherries, oranges, chocolate and coffee
Choose the type of wine (dry versus sweet) depending on the flavor you want in the dish you’re making. A very dry wine will have limited natural sugars remaining, while a sweet wine will contain a larger amount of natural sugars from the grapes.
Common cooking sense will determine that a light-flavored wine will do best in a delicate flavored dish, and bold-tasting wines will do well in a, you guessed it, boldly flavored dish. Also, a dish heavy on spices will need a full bodied wine to stand up to it.
Ready to begin your wine cooking adventure? Don’t forget to have fun, invent new flavors and be creative.
Bev Shaffer is a chef, food writer, cookbook author [“No Reservations Required,” “BROWNIES to die for!,” “Mustard Seed Market & Café Natural Foods Cookbook”], and culinary instructor. She can be reached through her Web site, www.bevshaffer.com or at