Tips for Cooking With Wine and Spirits

by formerchef on August 22, 2015

Tips for cooking with wine and spirits on

For as long as people have been making wine, they have been using it in cooking to enhance the flavor of their food. Ancient Romans used wine in their cooking and its use spread along with the empire. Today, all types of alcohol are used in cooking worldwide. Beer is often used in stews and cooking bratwurst. Wine is used in everything from sauces to desserts. Rice wine is used in many Asian cuisines.

Wine adds flavor and moisture to foods. It can even substitute for water, especially in long braises, but also in food cooked for a short time. Wine can also be used as the ‘acid” in marinades for meat and poultry.

When it comes to cooking with spirits, alcohol, especially neutral flavored ones made from grain or potato, may not contribute to the flavor of the dish as much as enhance the other ones already present. Alcohol dissolves fats and releases their flavors; for this reason Vodka in the Penne alla Vodka sauce recipe enhances the tomato via the cream.

When added at the end of the cooking process, the flavor of the liqueur used will be a finishing agent and its taste will be more pronounced. For example, kirsch is typically added right before serving a fondue. Grand Marnier, rum, brandy are added to flavor chocolate truffles. In a flambé, one can taste the brandy because the alcohol is only briefly set alight.

Tips for cooking with wine:

Use a decent wine when cooking; the cheapest wines may not yield the best results. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t drink the wine on its own, don’t cook with it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t perfectly decent bottles of wine out there for cooking in the $7-$10 range and if you buy something drinkable, you can always finish the bottle with the meal, avoiding waste.

Avoid anything labeled “cooking wine” sold with vinegars in the grocery aisle; they are loaded with salt and preservatives and you’d never want to drink them. On the other hand, save that gorgeous $50 Cabernet for drinking, the subtleties of flavor will be lost in cooking.

Keep in mind what you’re cooking when choosing the wine. Sweeter wines, dessert wines, and fortified wines have more sugar in them and work best with desserts. They can caramelize or even burn during the cooking process, so take care. Full bodied wines go well with beef and pork and the more acidic dry white wines with citrus notes do well with fish and chicken. But there are always exceptions to every rule; we use sherry (a fortified wine) with excellent results in the chicken recipe below, and a red wine (a Pinot Noir), pairs perfectly with the salmon below.

White wines for cooking; Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and unoaked Chardonnay (a Chardonnay with heavy oak in it can taste bitter when reduced). Sauvignon Blanc holds up well when used in cream sauces because of its high acidity, Pinot Grigio is neutral and great for poaching, while Chardonnay offers the most complexity. White wines often have flavor notes of citrus, vanilla, caramel, apples, tropical fruits and you can select wines with those flavors to enhance what you’re cooking.

Red wines for cooking; Lighter reds like Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Malbec. Take care with Cabernet because a heavily oaked wine can become too tannic. Red wines often have flavor notes of plum, cherry, berries, chocolate, coffee and mushrooms and those ingredients pair well with reds.

When making gravy, try deglazing the roasting pan with white wine to add acidity to the gravy which balances out the salty and savory flavors.

Does alcohol “cook off”? This is a common misconception; in truth, alcohol content diminishes with cooking time but never completely disappears. For example, in a sauce with alcohol added, after 15 minutes of simmering there’s about 40% left, after one hour,  25% and after two and a half hours there’s still 5% alcohol remaining.

Keep in mind those percentages are of the amount of alcohol originally added to the dish, not of the entire dish. The percentage of alcohol left from a cup of red wine used in cooking in 3 quarts of long simmered marinara is negligible, but the amount of alcohol left in a flambé using brandy and only flamed for a few seconds is quite high (about 75% remains). That said, if you are concerned about alcohol in a dish for personal or dietary reasons it’s always a good idea to ask how much is used and how it’s cooked.

In upcoming posts we’ll explore some recipes using wine as a key ingredient; Beef Bourguignon, Salmon with Pinot Noir Cherry Sauce, and Pears Poached in Red Wine with Orange Cardamom Sabayon.
In the meantime, there are already several recipes using wine and spirits right here on Former Chef. Here are a few of my favorites:

Let me know; do you like to cook with wine or do you just prefer to have it in your glass?

1 Susan De Masi August 23, 2015 at 9:50 am

Never was a wine drinker, but I do like to cook with it. Nothing like a shot of white wine to make your linguini and clams stand out. I also like to bake with booze-Kahlua brownies and Drambuie gingerbread disappear quickly around here, mostly into me!

2 formerchef August 23, 2015 at 10:39 am

Absolutely! White wine with clams is a MUST! Hmmm…I’ve been meaning to do that for the blog…

3 Vivian August 24, 2015 at 6:52 am

Absolutely! I’ve deglazed many a pan, and sipped from the same bottle (in a glass of course!) Love this post and will share it 🙂

4 formerchef August 24, 2015 at 7:13 am

Ah Vivian, sounds like we cook the same way! Thanks!

5 Veronica Marks November 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Thank you for listing the good wines for cooking. I actually don’t drink wine, so I wouldn’t know if it was something worth using or not. Just having a list of the different kinds that work well for cooking helps a lot!

6 formerchef November 20, 2015 at 6:31 pm

You’re welcome!

7 jimi April 14, 2016 at 7:58 am

very awsome post! i only drink wine for dizzy but you used for cooking. thanks for share ~

8 Larry McCoy April 19, 2016 at 11:39 pm

You have provided very useful tips to use wine in food. Next time when I am going to cook then I will make sure to use roasting pan with white wine. One more thing we should consider is storing of wine at the safe place, for that we should make use of storage units, if we are keeping large amount of wine bottles at our place.
Thanks for sharing these useful tips and these will going to make food more delicious.

9 georgian wine June 23, 2016 at 10:16 am

I don’t like to drink but for cooking with wine i like it.I think wine make food tasty more.

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