Cooking with Wine: Stop the insanity!

“A bottle of Chablis, hey now, that ain’t no stuff for me
Chateau Timberley, as long as I can’t see
Gallo or Muscatel, either one would be just swell
I didn’t come here to fight, hey just as long as that ain’t white”

-The Replacements, Red Red Wine

There is an old adage that one should never cook with a wine that one would not drink. If one were to repeat this adage, one would be committing first degree bullshit, and one wouldn’t want that, would one? In fact, if you ever find yourself at someone’s house and see them cooking with really good wine, steal everything you can before you leave. They obviously have too much money and not enough sense.

There are very few pearls of wine ‘wisdom’ more stupid, or more often repeated than ‘Don’t cook with wine you would not drink.’ If you like to cook with wine, go to the store and get a box of red and a box of white. It is really that simple. At least 80% of your wine cooking needs will have been met. The boxes even have a bladder in them that keeps air out so they will keep for a long time. Throw in a bottle each of vermouth, marsalla, and port, and you are ready for just about anything. Just don’t break the bank on those either.

If one were to repeat this adage, one would be committing first degree bullshit, and one wouldn't want that, would one?
The real rule for cooking with wine is “Never cook with a wine that you COULDN’T drink if it was the only thing in the house and you really needed to get your drunk on because your spouse just left you and didn’t take the cat with them.” Seriously, for most applications that is as good as it has to be. The only real exceptions are if the wine is not going to cook, or if it is going to barely cook and is providing the primary flavor. So, if you are making a viniagrette, go ahead and sacrifice a few splashes of something decent, but even then there is usually no need to get too extravagent.

Here are a few important things to remember about cooking with wine:

  1. Never cook with flawed wine. Even though a lot of the flavors in wine blend in, or even cook out, many of them intensify. Cork taint (TCA) and oxidation will definitely become more pronounced.
  3. The myth about only cooking with what you would drink was most likely started due to the abomination sold in supermarkets known as ‘cooking wine.’ This swill is not as prevalent as it once was, but it is still lurking on shelves over by the vinegar. Ignore it. Seriously, don’t even look at it. I mean it. Stop….
  5. As noted above, when adding wine late in the cooking process it is advisable to use a bit better juice. I always try to at least match the flavor profile with what I will be serving with the meal. Sometimes I do the same for long cooking foods as well. For example, if I am serving a Châteauneuf-du-Pape with lamb shanks, my braising liquid will probably be a cheap Cote du Rhone. Although, as tasty as many of the CdR’s are these days, a tear might escape my eye as I do so.
  7. When using wine to deglaze a pan, keep the flavor profile advice in mind. Two wines that I find well-suited for most dishes are Pinot Grigiot and Merlot. Typically, neither are the most distinctive wines, so they won’t take over your sauces.
  9. Red wine-based sauces usually require more reducing time than do sauces using white wine. More reduction deepens the color, so unless you are looking for a nice, bright purple sauce, let it cook down and you will be rewarded with a beautiful brown colored sauce.
  11. When adding a fortified wine, such as vermouth or sherry, to a cream sauce or soup, add it at the very end for finish your sauce. Too early and it will be lost in the sauce.
  13. The most successful food/wine pairings often happen when the wine is chosen based on the sauce, and not the meat that the sauce is used on. Knowing that can very helpful when cooking with wine.
  15. In a pinch, I have successfully substituted white wine when I should have been cooking with red. While not recommended, it can be pulled off with a little creativity. I wouldn’t try and use red when I needed white. It would be better to use chicken stock and a little lemon juice or rice wine vinegar instead.

I hope that this post prepares you for the next time that wine “expert” starts to spout off about what one should cook with. That isn’t expertise, it is merely parroting something that some other misguided soul repeated to them. Help stop the madness! Cook with what you like to use, but don’t let some n0-nothing get you to waste your hard-earned money. I have a friend, he’s a good cook and very knowledgeable about wine, and he typically uses a little of what he is drinking. That’s his choice, but he knows he doesn’t have to. Neither do you.

As for the “experts’ who will probably never stop spouting their BS, I wonder if they would be shocked to discover that some of the finest professional kitchens in the world have box or jug wine on their counters. Do they drink that stuff? Do you? Me either, but I damn sure cook with it. Quite well too, in my ever humble opinion.

While we’re at it, here is another bit of traditional wisdom that needs tossed on the bonfire of bullshit; all of the alcohol is removed during the cooking process. The truth is that up to 85% of the alcohol could remain, and even after 3 or 4 hours of cooking, you are not likely to reduce that percentage to below 5%. So, if you are concerned about alcohol in your food, just don’t use it.

Using wine can really take you cooking to the next level, but so many people don’t do it because they believe that they have to sacrifice expensive stuff to do it right. Bad advice is causing them to miss out. But one knows better now, doesn’t one?

One last piece of good advice about cooking with wine; a little wine in the cook always improves a dish. However, in this case I heartily recommend only the best wine available.


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