Choosing a wine to cook with can be maddening for any level cook, but with the cheat sheet below, hopefully you’ll be on your way to a less stressful trip to the wine shop and a much more enjoyable meal.
- Read the recipe. A recipe will often provide you with your starting point. While it may be vague i.e. “dry white wine” or it simply may read “1 cup wine”, these two seemingly unhelpful entries are actually full of information so don’t ignore them. The first, “dry white wine” translates to you buying white wine that is not sweet. The second, “1 cup wine” means you’ll only need to buy one bottle or you can even buy a split (a half bottle) if you don’t plan on drinking any. One standard size bottle of wine is 750 ml, which roughly translates to 26 ounces, so for cooking you will get about 4 cups from one bottle.
- Know what you’re planning to cook. If you are looking to make Coq au Vin, where wine shares the spotlight with the other main ingredient, chicken, you will need to buy a wine you like to drink. The wine matters much more in this scenario than if your dish calls for wine to deglaze the pan. Deglazing essentially means you need a little liquid to help steam off the bits of food that are starting to stick to the bottom of a pot or pan. In this case a splash of leftover wine is fine (leftover being an open wine that has not sat on your counter for more than 3 days or in your fridge for more than a week, and even at this point taste it first before you add it. Depending on what the room temperature is at your house your wine may turn to vinegar even faster than three days). You can achieve deglazing with water, but wine adds a layer of flavor and complexity, and is just plain more fun to cook with. Either way the wine should be palatable. But if it’s the star ingredient you may want to splurge — and by splurge I mean spend more than $8 but less than $20.
- What is Cooking Wine? O.K. in grocery stores, usually on the shelves with vinegar (this should be your first big RED FLAG) you will find a product labeled “Cooking Wine” or it may read “Sherry Cooking Wine”. They can legally be in a grocery store because they contain little or no alcohol. They also contain salt and other additives that can add chemical nuances to your dish. So skip this option all together.
- Only cook with something you like to drink. While this old adage is a great guideline you need not cook with a $50 bottle of wine, if indeed that is what you “like to drink”. This tip should read, “don’t cook with a wine that you would spit out”. When cooking wine, the characteristics change. Alcohol burns off and usually it reduces to concentrate the flavors. So concentrate a flavor you desire, don’t make an offensive sip worse by strengthening it in a dish. There are plenty of excellent wines for around $10/btl that you would drink and will work great in recipes. Don’t let the price tag trip you up. And when in doubt ask your wine shop owner/ manager. These guys have tasted the majority of what fills their shelves.
- Dry vs. Sweet This tip is simple. If you are making a savory dish buy a dry wine. Fruit- forward does not mean sweet. If a label describes it’s wine as fruity, that just means concentrated fruit flavor it has nothing to do with sugar. For dry whites go for Chardonnay. For dry reds, you have more to choose from: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot Noir (though this last category will be harder to find something sippable under $20) For sweeter whites look for Riesling, Semillon and Muscat and for even sweeter look for labels that read late- harvest and ice wine. For sweet reds, Lambrusco (a fizzy sweet Italian wine) or Port (technically a fortified wine because it has the addition of Brandy) will work great in your dessert recipes.
What wines do you like to cook with? Let us know in the comments.
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