What kind of wine should I use when I’m cooking?
As Julie Andrews once sang: “Let’s start at the very beginning…” :
Do not use “cooking wine”.
Look next to the vinegars in any grocery store and you’ll find an array of bottles labeled “white cooking wine”, “Cooking Sherry”, “Cooking Marsala”, etc. The reason they are not sold in the wine aisle is due to their classification as a “food product” because of the addition of salt. Some people say that “cooking wine” came to have salt added in order to keep chefs and cooks from imbibing on the job. Sadly, this is probably true. Unfortunately when wine is reduced during the cooking process, so is the salt rendering it very difficult to control the final seasoning and resulting in a less than ideal flavor.
“Don’t cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink”
This is a common recommendation and acts a good base guideline. I say base guideline because it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on an expensive bottle of wine that’s intended for the Daube de Boeuf (beef stew) or Coq au Vin (chicken braised in red wine). I was recently discussing this very topic with guests in one of my cooking classes. They were quite surprised to hear that most restaurants don’t use the pricy bottles of wines from the wine list for their sauces and reductions. Sure, there are always exceptions and in the case of a special wine dinner where the menu item is going to be paired with a specific wine the same wine is probably being used in the dish. However, in the restaurants that I’ve worked, the only time that a pricier bottle of wine made its way to the kitchen was when it was left over from a banquet or special occasion function. Even then, it would probably fall prey to sampling by the wait and culinary staff before it ever had a chance to make its mark on the menu. I generally don’t recommend paying any more than about $10-$12 a bottle for a intended for cooking. Most wine used for cooking in restaurant kitchens is going to be, hold your breath…are you ready? Jug wine. WHAT? ?? I can hear your collective gasps but yes, it’s true. You can do the same and not feel ashamed. After deglazing a pan with wine for a sauce it should generally be allowed to simmer and reduce in volume by two-thirds before continuing with further ingredients. The reduction of the wine helps to concentrate flavors and extended cooking will help to prevent a strong alcoholic flavor. When less expensive wines are reduced and blended with the many other flavors and ingredients, your guests will generally not have a clue as to whether you started off with an inexpensive option, or a pricier “made for drinking” model. Wines that are best are those that are medium-bodied so that they don’t completely overwhelm and dominate other flavors. Remember wine is one component of a sauce, not the only flavor. Unless you’re using wine in a sweet application, it’s generally a good idea to avoid white wines that are sweet such as Riesling. As with anything in cooking however, experimentation when you have the time and opportunity can provide new discoveries. Years ago during a corporate team-building and creativity experience that I put together for a group of corporate chefs we gave them six different styles of white and rose wine to use for making a butter sauce. The team that received the White Zinfandel felt slighted and were initially upset. When it came time for the taste test….one of everyone’s favorite butter sauces was the one produced from the White Zinfandel. Lesson: Experiment and see for yourself! Even when it comes to fortified wines such as sherry, Marsala, and Madeira there are plenty of options available that are under the $12 price point.
“Leftover wine? What’s that???
If you have no idea of what leftover wine is, or choose to cook with but not drink wine, there are some good options. The large bottles of “jug wine” are a good economical value for those who use large volumes such as restaurants. Most people probably don’t cook with that much frequently enough to use it up before it goes “off” and develops unpleasant flavors from oxidation. The easiest and most economical way to avoid this is to use Bag in the Box (BIB) wine. BIB wine is perfect for both frequent and infrequent users due to the fact that it’s sealed in an airtight bladder, allowing it to sit in your pantry at your disposal when needed. Another nice benefit is the array of package sizes available… everything from “juice box” size to the super jumbo economy pack. Simply dispense what you need and leave it in the pantry until the next time.
Storing Leftover Wine for Cooking
If you do have leftover drinking wine you either need to start buying better wine, or get new friends! Or perhaps you need to start inviting me to join you…
Seriously though, you do have a few options:
- First, keep in mind that chilling things will slow down chemical reactions and therefore slow the potential for wine to turn to vinegar.
- White wines are generally stored just fine in the refrigerator. Do remember however, the less oxygen in the bottle, the longer the shelf-life of the wine.
- When refrigerated red wines can throw off and have precipitation of sediment. This isn’t harmful but will add particles to whatever you add the wine to. If this has occurred, simply strain the wine. To prevent it from occurring, pour the wine into a smaller container to minimize the oxygen in contact with it and store at room temperature.
- In either case you can use one of many methods that usually involve pumping oxygen out of the bottle, or spray cans that add a layer of nitrogen (heavier than oxygen) to the bottle to prevent the surface of wine from contacting with oxygen.
- Freeze your wine in small containers, whether it be small storage containers or even ice cube trays each with a tablespoon or two of wine in the compartments will help you to maximize the benefit of any leftover wine.
Alcohol Cooks off During Cooking, right?
Actually, no. The intensity and undesirable volatile aromatic compounds of alcohol will cook off with the initial cooking but it actually takes a long time for the majority of alcohol to be cooked out of a dish. It will also depend on the method of cooking being utilized. According to the USDA Table of Nutrient Retention Factors, when wine is added to a boiling liquid, 85% of the alcohol remains. Even after extended cooking of about 2 ½ hours there is still about 5% alcohol remaining. Keep in mind that those numbers are a percentage of the original volume of alcohol and of course it’s being greatly diluted by everything else in the sauce.