A Pinch of This, a Splash of That

Tips for Cooking with Wine

Using wine in cooking intensifies flavor and adds another level of uniqueness to your recipe. It gives a dish that extra something special to turn great-grandma’s pasta sauce recipe into your own (and make your sister-in-law jealous). So grab that secret ingredient from the wine cellar and head to the kitchen.

As Julia Child says, “I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food I’m cooking.”

Wine should be added to food early enough in the cooking process that it has time to simmer. As wine cooks down, the alcohol evaporates away and the flavors begin to concentrate. Use a light hand at first until you get familiar with cooking with wine.

Typically, white wines impart their delicate flavor to seafood, and dishes like chicken piccata and vegetable risotto. Red wine adds depth to bolder dishes like beef bourguignon, mushroom steak sauce, and of course, great-grandma’s famous pasta sauce.

Using wine in a reduction or to deglaze a pan creates an intense and complex sauce. It easily picks up those coveted brown bits that elevate the flavor of any dish. But be careful—light and overly fruity wines can ruin a sauce. The fruitiness is lost during the cooking process and will leave the sauce too acidic, ensuring those lovely brown bits have gone to waste.

Red or White?

Let’s be clear about what is considered a good cooking wine. The so-called “Cooking Wine” found in your local grocery store next to the fancy vinegars and Worcestershire sauce is a poor excuse for a cooking ingredient. They are low in alcohol content, highly acidic, and contain a massive amount of salt.

Instead, choose a wine you would pair with the meal. Use one that is fruity, medium or full-bodied, and with little or no oak flavor. Wine aged in oak barrels tends to turn bitter and harsh when cooked in food.

For red wines, Pinot Noir and blends such as Côtes du Rhône will produce consistent results. Again, avoid wines aged in oak such as the robust Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines should also be dry and full-bodied. Try a Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay, or even a French Vermouth.

Let’s Talk Price

Does an expensive wine produce a better sauce than a wine picked from the bargain bin? Well, maybe. America’s Test Kitchen tested sauces made from similar wines in the $5, $10, $20 and $30 price points. They discovered that the $5 wines cooked down to sweet, syrupy sauces, while the $10, $20 and $30 bottles were smoother, making sauces with multiple layers of flavor.

Although tasters favored wines in the two more expensive price ranges, none thought the difference justified spending an extra $10 or $20. They found that limiting the price to $10 left cooks with plenty of good shopping options.

Cooking Tips:

  • Add a light, dry white wine to melted butter and baste grilled, broiled, or baked fish.
  • Mix wine with different herbs and olive oil to make a delicious 
salad dressing.
  • Stir in a couple tablespoons of red wine into brown gravy. Slowly simmer to create a luscious sauce for beef.
  • Freeze leftover drinking wine in ice cube trays for future cooking use.
  • Use a wine-based marinade to help keep meat, poultry or
 seafood moist while it cooks.