How to Cook with Wine

Beer and Wine, Cooking How-To, Cooking Show, Drinks, How-To
on June 30, 2011
Cooking with Wine

Cooking with wine can definitely be daunting.  What do you use?  When do you add it?  Does the alcohol cook out?  These are a few of the great questions posed by Relish FB super fan, Melodie Mills on a recent Chef in Your Pocket Facebook Q&A.  Melodie doesn't drink wine, but wants to be more comfortable using it in her recipes.  I bet there are a few of you who feel that same way, so today we're going to do a little Cooking With Wine 101.  I hope this will empower you to use wine, and the big, rich flavor it imparts.  Thanks again for the question, Melodie.  Here goes!

NOTE!: The best tool you can possibly have when it comes to making wine fun and tasty versus confusing and frustrating is a friendly, knowledgeable reseller.  Find a good one and be loyal and they'll help you every step of the way.

Q: What do different wines "do" in a dish and how do they taste different?

A: Wine contributes 3 main things to a recipe: flavor, color and acidity/sweetness.  

  • Flavor: As you can imagine, the flavors found in the bottle vary wildly from wine to wine. That's a big part of the challenge of using wine in cooking, right? Red wine flavors can range from smoke, leather and cedar to earth and mushrooms to raspberry jam to fresh red fruit. Whites can range from grass and lemon to butter and oak to honey and flowers. For general use, I keep a cabernet sauvignon and a sauvignon blanc on hand for recipes that call for a "red" or "white."  When I want to accentuate the particular flavors of a dish, I go see my trusty neighborhood wine retailer, and you can too! Just let he or she know what flavors you're cooking with and they'll point you in the right direction.
  • Color: This one's pretty simple. Whites impart no color to a mild yellow hue, while reds impart shades that range from purple to brick red.  For white or light-colored sauces and soups, stick with a white wine. For roasted or dark-colored soups and sauces, stick with reds.
  • Acidity/Sweetness: I like using crisp, bright wines (like sauvignon blanc) in most recipes because the acidity really brightens other flavors in the dish, especially in creamy or fatty sauces that might otherwise tend towards round and dull. In terms of sweetness, it's important to consider the other flavors in your dish. The sugarin in wine can punch up sweet fruit flavors and even meat when used "gently," but can really stomp all over delicate, lighter flavors. I generally only use sweet wines in desserts, some fish and game.  Otherwise, I keep it clean and crisp. Again, don't be afraid to lean on your local wine retailer for direction. They'll be a Sommelier in Your Pocket!

Q: Do you have to use expensive wines?

A: Definitely not.  Save the really good stuff for sharing with friends and family. My cooking wine selection consists of leftovers from recent entertaining and a trusty standby box of red and white in the fridge. That's right, I said box. There are some really drinkable (and very cookable) boxed wines available now, and the bag-in-box system keeps the wine super fresh over a month or more.  The Yellow + Blue brand is my personal fridge staple cooking wine.  I also keep a bottle of inexpensive tawny port and dry sherry on the shelf.  

Q: Does boiling cook the alcohol out of wine?

A:  You know, most folks think that a quick boil or flambé cooks all of the alcohol out of wine or spirits in cooking, but it takes a little more than that to remove all alcohol.  Several factors such as heat and pan size are in play, but in general a quick flambé removes about 15 percent of the alcohol, a 15 minute boil removes about 50 percent and a two-hour bake or simmer removes about 80-90 percent. To completely evaporate all of the alcohol out, you'll need to slow-cook the dish for at least 3 hours.

Q: Should I add wine at the end of the cooking time?

A: I'm so glad you asked this question!  Adding wine at the end of a recipe usually adds a harsh, raw wine flavor which isn't what you want. On the flip side, adding wine to a big pot of liquid doesn't really accomplish much either. Here's the key: In almost every recipe calling for wine, I add it at the beginning and allow it to reduce before adding more liquid. This concentrates the flavor, takes the edge off the acidity and really helps the wine flavor sing through in the finished dish. For example, let's say you're making a soup or sauce that starts by sautéing veggies in oil. Once those veggies are cooked, I'll add the wine, scrape up the tasty little bits stuck to the bottom of the pan (which the wine will loosen for you), and cook until there's just a bit of super-concentrated wine left. Then, I'll add the stock, herbs, etc. and proceed. If we added the wine with the stock in that example, the flavor of the wine would be thin and wimpy.

Melodie, I hope this info is helpful. I know it's a lot to think about.  It think it's best just to keep it simple.  Keep a decent red and white boxed wine in the fridge, add it early in your recipes and reduce it whenever possible. If you follow those simple guidelines, you'll be in good shape!

—By Brian Morris, Chef in Your Pocket