Cooking with Wine: Tips to Save You Money

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At the risk of not sounding gourmet, there are times when using the best isn’t the best thing to do.

Cooking with wine is one of them.

You see, when wine is heated, the alcoholic content, as well as sulfites, begin to disappear. In some cases, this leaves only the essence of the grape varietals to impart their subtle flavors.

There is usually a reason you pay more for great wines, but it has more to do with careful crafting, aging and the laws of supply and demand. None of this impacts a well-made Beurre Blanc or Coq au Vin.

Buying an expensive wine for cooking, when you don’t benefit from everything that makes it expensive, is like buying a Ferrari for the value of the sheet metal.

What kind of wine SHOULD you buy for cooking?

Keep in mind that, depending on the recipe you are using, what you’re left with after cooking and reducing is the tart flavor of fermented grapes, some sweetness and perhaps some oak.

And that isn’t meant to suggest that wine isn’t that important to the dish; it is. But consider that wine’s role is as a supporting character, not the star. Some wine is NOT sweet but is called fruit (grape) forward, meaning that it has a robust flavor characteristic of its grape type. This type of wine will give you a better bang for your buck than a wine that is cloaked in nuances of flavors you’ll never taste once they’re combined with more overpowering meats, vegetables, spices or dairy products.

Most cooks, if forced to choose only one white wine and one red wine for cooking, would likely choose Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can easily find great cooking wines like these in the $10 to $20 range. In my opinion, if you’re spending more than $20 for cooking wine, you’re spending too much (or maybe you just want to brag that you use expensive wines to cook with).

Without getting into specific labels, here are some basics:

  1. Only use wines in your cooking that you’d enjoy drinking. The wine doesn’t magically improve when added to the dish.
  2. Don’t use so-called cooking wines! These wines have salt and other additives that affect the taste of your dish.

Cooking with Wine

Wine can be used in cooking as follows:

  1.  Used raw as a flavorful acid in marinades and dressings. The tannins and acids in wine not only help to break down tough connective tissues but also add a distinctive wine flavor that vinegar just can’t.
  2. Cooked as part of a sauce ingredient. In this case, you’re leaving behind the alcohol that boils off at a lower temperature than water and leaving behind the reduction of grapes.
  3. As a finishing liquid/flavor. In this case, you DO get some of both #1 and #2 because you are not dissipating all of the alcohol and subtleties of the wine. You are adding the wine JUST before finishing the sauce/recipe and then letting it simmer for only a short period of time.

Why use wine in cooking?

Like any flavor, wine has a distinct aroma and taste, which can add interest and complexity to recipes. In this way, it’s no different from Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon juice or any number of other liquid seasonings.

If you like the flavor of wine itself, adding it to certain recipes can be an improvement. But take care not to overdo it. Like any seasoning, too little is a waste of time and too much can ruin an otherwise great recipe. Furthermore, not every dish or sauce can be improved by adding wine.

What can I do with my leftover wine?

Well, I’ll presume you’ve chosen a wine you could enjoy drinking, so hopefully, any remaining wine won’t go to waste. Generally speaking, however, a well-corked wine will last in your fridge for about a week, giving you plenty of time to figure out what to do.

So how much alcohol is left in my wine after cooking?

Keep in mind that when you add wine to a dish, the overall alcohol content of the resulting sauce is already diluted, and if the dish is cooked to the point where the wine reaches a simmer, the alcohol content diminishes some with each passing minute.

The following table of alcohol remaining after food preparation is from the Agricultural Research Services of the USDA (1989):

Wines can have different alcohol percentages from the beginning, so whatever that alcohol content is represents 100% from the moment you open the bottle.

100% Right out of the bottle at the initial opening
85% Bringing to an immediate boil and removing from the heat
75% Flamed
70% Opening, consuming some, and then storing it overnight
40% Dishes that have been baked or simmered 15 minutes
35% After 30 minutes
25% After 1 hour
20% After 1.5 hours
10% After 2 hours
5% After 2.5 hours

Sherry, Port and Vermouth?

These three wines fall under the category of fortified wines, meaning additional alcohol is added. Sherry, Port, Madeira and Marsala are also very sweet.

These wines are used in specialty desserts and classic recipes like Veal Marsala. Their sweetness accentuates the dish. Be careful, however. More is sometimes less.