As if it wasn't already evident, we love cooking. Whether we're serving a multi-course meal, laying out an overflowing buffet spread, or simply throwing together a quick meal on a weeknight, there's really nothing like that time in the kitchen, and cranking out spectacular eats. There are many ways to elevate flavors in a dish, so many tactics and techniques to apply to achieve the perfect bite. One thing I really like to incorporate into my cooking is wine. Now wine too comes in so many different forms - fortified, not fortified, white, red, bold, subtle, smooth, oakey - that list goes on and on. There are many different characteristics you can seek out in cooking wine, so I thought it might be helpful to introduce some of the most popular cooking wines, and their best uses.
Fortified wines are made by adding a proportion of a distilled spirit (usually grape brandy) to a wine at some point during the production process. This creates an ultra-stable wine which is shelf-safe for many months, even after being opened. These wines are rich, fragrant, and typically rather sweet – great for cooking!
Madeira is a fortified wine used commonly in French cooking. It is often added to pork and chicken dishes, both in the marinade as well as the final product. It has a lot of sweetness, so it’s best used sparingly, though it can add a lot to a dish. Try sautéing a pan of mushrooms with Madeira, and you won’t believe the transformation!
Sherry is a fortified wine that originated in the South of Spain. It has a sweet, nutty flavor and is often added to soups and stews for elevated flavor and a boozy component. It is especially delectable in lobster bisque, complimented by the creamy texture and rich, buttery lobster meat. In addition to being a great cooking wine, it is also suitable for sipping - perhaps alongside your meal.
Marsala, which comes from Sicily, is another sweet fortified wine. It’s most common use is in the popular Italian dish Chicken (or Veal) Marsala, which highlights it's unique flavor notes. It is often added to sauces, and can even be used in desserts like tiramisu.
Port is the last of the fortified wines we’ll mention – itis a rich, deep red wine that is also rather sweet, and great for sipping post-meal. It has a rich, luxurious taste, and works great as an addition to sauces – especially ones that are reduced down to concentrate flavor.
Rice wines are spirits made from the fermentation of rich starch (a process similar to how beer is made), and include products like Japanese Sake, Chinese Huangjiu, and Mirin. Rice wines are often used to make marinades for meat and tofu. Characteristically they have bright, tangy flavors, which allow them to stand up well to other flavors in marinades. Their flavors are best catered towards beef and seafood dishes. Because of the strong flavor profile, rice wines aren’t often used in sauces.
When cooking with both red and white wine, you are faced with a plethora of options. Some people prefer to cook with whatever is on hand, while others prefer to pick a bottle of wine by it’s properties, and how they’d mingle with a certain piece of meat or type of dish. Often it's best to stick by the adage that you should only cook with something you'd be content to drink - as long as your taste isn't for $100+ bottles of wine! Then you're best off sticking to something you wouldn't spit out, and it should do the trick when cooking with it. To get you started, we’ve outlined a few basic principles in choosing a bottle of wine that will best suit your meal – for eating and drinking alike!
White Wines have many different characteristics depending on the grape, style, etc., but when compared to the bulk of red wines, they more subtle flavor notes, and can be used with more delicate pieces of meat, including fish and poultry. Many recipes will distinguish whether you need a dry white wine, which simply means you're looking for something that isn't sweet. Also important to consider when picking a white wine is what type of meal you're planning to cook. If it's being paired with more subtle flavors, it's best to pick a subtler wine like a Pinot Grigio or America Savignon Blanc, but if you're cooking something that has bold, spicy flavors, a wine like a Gewurztraminer or a Riesling would be best, as they both tend to have more body and more dynamic flavor profiles.
Red Wine typically has a lot of body, and can impart a great amount of flavor onto whatever it is you're cooking. Generally, any red wine trumps white when cooking meat dishes including beef, lamb, and veal, simply because those pieces of meat can stand up to the more robust flavors of a red wine. If you're making a really hearty dish, like a slow-cooking pot roast, a bigger wine like a Syrah or a Zinfandel will work best. A lighter meat dish would probably be better off with a slightly less robust red, like a Pinot Noir or a Chianti.
While it may seem daunting trying to pick and choose which wine you'll use in your dish, don't let it overwhelm you. Cooking with wine (both in the pan and with a glass in your hand) can really turn something plain into something spectacular, and it's easy! Next time you've got brown bits stuck to the bottom of your pan, de-glaze with some wine, or pour a splash into your favorite marinade. Getting your feet wet will help you feel comfortable letting wine become a star component of your favorite dish.
What's your favorite way to incorporate wine into cooking?