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 in the vinegar section of 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 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: