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What Is the Best Wine for Cooking?
Even if you haven’t cooked with wine before, you may have already enjoyed or heard of many dishes that have been prepared with wine. Red wine is a crucial ingredient in many recipes, where it helps to marinate and tenderize meats to fall-apart perfection but also can serve as the base for a final glaze.
How to Use Wine for Cooking
Wine is primarily used in cooking for its acidity, which not only helps to break down cuts of meat through low-and-slow methods like braising but also retains moisture and finer texture in lighter proteins like fish.
When cooking with wine, the alcohol evaporates leaving shades of its aromatic and flavor compounds behind in the final dish.
In certain dessert applications, like a red-wine poached apple tarte Tatin, the fruit adopts the brilliant purple stain of the wine and gives the sweetness of the dish a subtle, tangy high note—a much better foil for the spoon of vanilla ice cream you might serve alongside it.
What Does Wine Add to a Recipe?
Wine can add elements of flavor, aroma, and moisture to a dish. It can be used to marinate meats or vegetables or incorporate flavor straight from the heat of a pan. Red wine is more tannic and has bolder flavors than white wine, which can add a light and crisp acidity.
Different varietals of wine bring their own flavor profiles and qualities to specific types of dishes. Stick to the type of wine (red, white, or a fortified wine like sherry) that the recipe calls for, but feel free to experiment between different grapes and see what you like best.
What’s the Difference Between Cooking Wine and Regular Wine?
Calling something a “cooking wine” often just refers to a regular table wine well-suited for both drinking and cooking. However, you might also see bottles that go by the same name, often shelved among the vinegar and seasonings in some grocery stores. Think of that as cooking “wine”: It does contain alcohol, but these wines also contain salt, and sometimes sugar and other spices, in order to make them both shelf-stable and more flavorful. (Shaoxing wine, or Chinese cooking wine, is a seasoned rice wine commonly used in many Chinese dishes.) Don’t drink cooking “wine.”
How to Choose a Cooking Wine
Choosing a wine to cook with is less complicated than it sounds. Generally, you should cook with a wine that you would drink yourself. You can cook with a bottle of wine open for a few days, or even a generic bottle from the corner store. If you’re planning on drinking the same wine with the meal, spend a little more time finding something that you’d enjoy on its own. You’re rarely using more than a good splash of wine in cooking, but maybe save that top-shelf, limited-release vintage for another night. Most of what makes that fancy wine great (the complex aromas, the maturity) will be lost through the cooking process anyway.
If you have the option, try to buy a dry wine over a sweet one, as the residual sugars in the sweet wine will impart unwanted sweetness to the dish. Second to that, the varietal of wine you purchase matters most.
Cooking With Fortified Wines
Fortified wines have higher alcohol levels than the average table wine, thanks to the addition of distilled spirits. That higher ABV, typically somewhere in the neighborhood of 20%, prevents the wine from spoiling, and allows fortified winemakers to coax out more complex flavors through oxidization, which usually read as a nutty, raisin-like note.
- Marsala is a fortified Italian wine, sold both dry and sweet. In classic applications like chicken marsala, sweet marsala adds a caramelized edge to ingredients like mushrooms. It’s used in many Italian custard-based desserts, too. Dry marsala, like dry white wine, is a good fit for shellfish.
- Port and Madeira are fantastic contenders for desserts. Reducing them, as you would in a pan sauce, creates a demi-glaze with elegant viscosity and notes of prune and spice, not unlike an aged balsamic vinegar. Remember that their sweetness will increase when you reduce, so choose accordingly.
- Sherry is an aged white wine supplemented with brandy. Seasoned “cooking sherry” is also a popular addition to braises and earthy vegetables.
What to Substitute for Wine in Cooking
It’s not the end of the world if you can’t get your hands on some wine in time for dinner. Many substitutes get you a similar end result, just with a little less flair.
- Stock. Chicken, vegetable, or beef stock will provide flavor and aroma. You can use chicken or vegetable stock for a white wine recipe and any of the three stocks for a red wine recipe. Learn how to make five different stocks in our guide here.
- Red or white wine vinegar, depending on whether you’d use red or white wine. Learn all about different types of cooking vinegars in our complete guide here.
- Juice. A rich, fruity juice like grape, cranberry, or pomegranate can substitute for red wine. Apple, white grape, or lemon juice can substitute for white wine.
- Water. When in doubt, use water. Using wine in a dish is primarily a way to add complex flavor without fundamentally changing the amount of liquid. If you add water instead, simply season along with it to make sure you don’t dilute the final flavors of the dish.
Best Varietals of Red Wine For Cooking
if dry white wines champion the lighter side of the menu, the savory gets a boost from an array of reds. Be aware that big, full-bodied reds like zinfandel, shiraz, and syrah tend to bring big tannins, too, which can turn chalky when cooked.
- braising proteins such as ribs. The braising effect will soften the meat while it cooks and enriches the flavors of the additional ingredients. The leftover braising liquid can then be used as a glaze. When deglazing with a cabernet, its lack of sugar will prevent it from caramelizing over a hot pan. Learn more about cabernet sauvignon in our guide here.
- Pinot noir is a much lighter varietal that cooks nicely with a meaty stew. The light wine will tenderize the meat as it cooks and works with the fatty flavors. This method will call for a few cups of wine, so pinot noir is a go-to varietal that’s not too bold or overpowering.
- Merlot is a silky red wine that’s fruit-forward with low tannins. Like cabernet and pinot noir, this wine also cooks well with proteins. Use merlot for a pan sauce or a reduction. This process involves heating the red wine with a few other seasoning ingredients in sauté pan on low heat until it simmers. This thickens the wine and makes those bold flavors much more concentrated. It produces a rich sauce when finished.
Wine is an alcoholic drink typically made from fermented grapes. Yeast consumes the sugar in the grapes and converts it to ethanol, carbon dioxide and heat. Different varieties of grapes and strains of yeasts are major factors in different styles of wine. These differences result from the complex interactions between the biochemical development of the grape, the reactions involved in fermentation, the grape’s growing environment (terroir), and the wine production process. Many countries enact legal appellations intended to define styles and qualities of wine. These typically restrict the geographical origin and permitted varieties of grapes, as well as other aspects of wine production. Wines not made from grapes involve fermentation of additional crops, including rice wine and other fruit wines such as plum, cherry, pomegranate, currant and elderberry.