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Cooking with Wine 101

Mickey Caulfield

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Cooking with Wine: the Basics

Have a couple bottles of open wine you’ve been sitting on that you’re not sure how you should use? Think it looks like what you should probably be doing when they pour wine in the spaghetti sauce on The Sopranos but not sure what wine to use, or how much? Or just afraid you overdid it the last time you tried adding wine to the gravy? Let our rundown of cooking with wine basics get you up to speed and off experimenting on your own.

Why cook with wine?

When the wine is well-paired to the recipe, cooking with wine adds new flavors and accentuates others. Wine is essentially an acidic ingredient, so it helps tenderize meat and can balance rich sauces without watering them down.

Cooking with wine can also be a healthier option. Not because of the usually touted antioxidant effects, but because it can be used as a flavorful partial replacement for cooking with calorie- and fat-rich oils. In many recipes — meat, fish and vegetables — the recommended amount of oil can be reduced by half and the missing portion replaced with wine, decreasing the nutritional “hit” of fried food without sacrificing rich flavor.

 

How do I choose the right wine?

One rule of thumb is to cook with the same wine you’d serve, but if figuring that out is just as headache-inducing, here’s some basic guidelines:

  • White wine is usually paired with lighter-colored meats and recipes like chicken, seafood, cream sauces and sometimes pork…
  • Whereas red wine is usually paired with darker-colored foods and red meats like beef, lamb, red sauces, chocolate desserts … and sometimes pork.

The most basic and commonly-used wine for cooking is a dry white wine like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay — or Frontenac Gris if you wanted to cook Minnesota-local — followed by a dry red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir, or Minnesota’s own Marquette. Rich wines that feature a lot of additives can turn in the cooking process without the right ingredients to neutralize them, and sweet wines will caramelize and glaze over (useful for deserts and specific dishes, but unwelcome when it’s not the desired effect). Sparkling wine or Champagne can even work if it’s not too sweet — the carbonation dissipates when cooked, so it’s a perfect way to get rid of that flat bubbly after a party.

 

When do I put it in?

There are three points at which wine could enter the cooking process: as an ingredient in a marinade to tenderize meat before cooking (which may also be cooked with the meat), as a cooking liquid or as a finishing touch, served essentially uncooked (but probably heated) on top of the dish. Unless the last is the desired effect, wine as a cooking ingredient should added to a dish early enough to simmer with the meat or sauce and enhance the flavor of the dish. Most of the alcohol in wine evaporates while cooking, but the flavor remains, intermingling with and accentuating flavors in the other ingredients. Don’t add other liquids like stock or tomato juice to a dish at the same time as you add wine –– the wine needs a chance to cook on its own or with the meat to fully develop its flavor. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a “raw” wine taste rather than one then blends in with and enhances your meal.

 

How much do I put in?

For a sauce in an average-sized pan, half to three-fourths of a cup of wine should be enough — one to two tablespoons of wine per cup of sauce, depending on the desired strength. When cooking meat in a roast or stew, a fourth of a cup of wine to each pound of meat is a good rule of thumb. Proceed slowly in adding more wine if you think you need more — wait at least 10 minutes after adding wine before judging its flavor.

Wine is made up of components like sugars, acids and tannins that need to be kept in check with the recipe for the best results. If your recipe already contains an acidic ingredient like vinegar or lemon juice, adding too much wine could result in an overly-acidic finished product, so pour sparingly. Sugar-packed root vegetables like carrots, onions and potatoes, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect, soaking up almost anything you throw at them, so a fuller-bodied wine should be fine for your pot roast. Red wine has a lot of tannins, which complement meat, but can become harsh or bitter when reduced in a sauce without meat.

 

What kind? Should I use cooking wine?

There seems to be some debate over whether or not you should cook with wine you wouldn’t want to drink, but this is a more nuanced question than it might appear to be on the surface. You can safely pass on stocking low quality wine labelled cooking wine (or, God forbid, “wine product”) — they’re usually overly salty and low in alcohol, if not an out-and-out blend of table wine with juice and salt. But even the hoity-est of toits would probably admit they’re not going to use their best bottle on the marinara, so where’s the line?

The subtlest notes in a wine’s bouquet are generally subsumed into the flavor of the dish during cooking, so a moderately-priced, drinkable wine will do, especially if it’s going to cook in the dish for a while. Most of the time, it’s just not worth cooking with an expensive wine: the nuances in the flavor will get either cooked out or subsumed by other flavors. The exception that proves the rule: the time you can reach for that top-shelf bottle and its specific notes will sing is if you have a recipe that calls for wine as a finishing touch.

But while a wine that was never any good to begin with might not be worth cooking with, that’s not necessarily the case with wine that has simply seen better days –– a wine that was of drinkable quality but is past its prime will usually do fine (within reason –– please don’t cook with totally spoiled wine because I said it was okay!). Those foul acetone-like notes will cook off given a chance to simmer, and this is a fine way to use wine that’s gone undrunk a bit too long without wasting it.

Ultimately, part of the fun of cooking with wine is experimenting. Unlike an errant tablespoon of cumin or curry powder, a slightly-off wine choice is unlikely to totally ruin your meal –– it will still serve to tenderize it and bring out new flavors. If you think a wine will go well with your recipe, give it a try.
Social media plugs:

Have a couple bottles of open wine you’ve been sitting on that you’re not sure how you should use? Let our rundown of cooking with wine basics get you up to speed and off experimenting on your own.
Think it looks like what you should probably be doing when they pour wine in the spaghetti sauce on The Sopranos but not sure what wine to use, or how much? Let our rundown of cooking with wine basics get you up to speed and off experimenting on your own.

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About The Author


Mickey Caulfield

Mickey Caulfield is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and certified mixologist.
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