"People often say to only cook with a wine you'd be willing to drink. Is that true? Does it really matter what kind of wine I use for cooking?"
Why does wine cause us so much anxiety? Whether choosing a bottle from the list at a fancy restaurant, or deciding which one to pour into a braise, we can't seem to do it without fretting over whether we've made a good choice or not. The conventional wisdom these days is to only cook with wine that you'd be willing to drink, though that raises even more questions: How do we define a wine that we'd be willing to drink? Would that include the free wine we'd tolerate for the buzz at a party? Or is the bar higher than that—you know, like a wine we actually enjoy? And if the minimum quality is a wine we'd be willing to drink, is it worth paying even more to get a wine that is special; would the food be that much better?
For the past few weeks, I've been cooking nonstop with wine, both red and white, to explore the effects of their flavor on a dish. I've compared light reds to big, tannic ones; fruity, tart whites to buttery ones that have spent plenty of time in oak barrels; off-dry (read: slightly sweet) wines to dry ones; cheap wines to expensive ones; and long cooking methods to quick ones.* What I've found is that while certain characteristics of a wine will have an impact on the final dish, in most instances those differences are relatively subtle. In many cases, it makes little to no difference at all.
*I did not experiment with fortified and oxidized wines, like port, vermouth, sherry, or Marsala.
Of course there are many factors at play, Just consider the thousands upon thousands of different wines available in the world, and all the different ways they can be used in food. Some dishes may require just a tiny splash of wine, while others, like coq au vin, use it as a main ingredient. It would take years to explore all the possible combinations and permutations, so even with all my tests, the best I can offer are some useful guidelines and observations.
One of the first tests I wanted to try was to take a close look at how wines change as they cook and reduce. I started with whites, selecting three different varietals: an off-dry (i.e., slightly sweet) Riesling, a dry, tart Sauvignon Blanc, and a buttery, oaky Chardonnay.
I took a cup of each wine and reduced them down to 1/4 cup.
As they reduced, the color of the whites darkened to a more orange tone; the Chardonnay, which started out the most golden before cooking, took on the darkest tone of the three, as you can see in the photo above.
Tasting these wine reductions, two things jumped out immediately. First (and unsurprisingly), the presence of sugar in a wine like the Riesling has a drastic effect on how it tastes even after cooking, with the sweetness concentrating through reduction; the cooked Riesling wasn't quite syrupy, but it was close. So, the first big rule of choosing a wine when cooking is to consider the sweetness: Use a sweet wine only if you want sweetness in the final dish, otherwise use a dry wine. Most recipes will specify whether the wine should be dry or not, so follow that guidance when using a recipe, lest you end up with a very different creation than the recipe author intended.
The second thing that struck me was that, aside from sugar, the acidity of the whites had the biggest impact on their flavor when cooked. The Sauvignon Blanc, which started out very bright and tart, became extremely tart, almost lemony. The uncooked Chardonnay wasn't as acidic as the Sauvignon Blanc, but its acidity concentrated significantly during cooking, and was the most noticeable quality once cooked; its oakiness, while detectable, was a much more minor flavor once cooked.
I repeated this test with two red wines: an oaky, jammy Cabernet Sauvignon with soft tannins, and a light, tart Beaujolais Villages.
Once reduced, both reds showed the same pattern as the whites, with their acidity becoming much more pronounced. That ripe, jammy fruitiness of the Cabernet Sauvignon helped balance some of the concentrated sourness of the cooked version, whereas the Beaujolais, with less ripe fruit flavors, was more harshly acidic once reduced.
Isolating the wines like this was enlightening, but it's not a realistic example of cooking with wine, since other ingredients will have a big effect on how things taste. I needed to do some real cooking.
Quick Cooking With Wine: Pan Sauces
To test the effect of a wine's flavor on a quick-cooked dish, I whipped up several batches of pan-seared pork loin cutlets, deglazing each pan with wine once the pork was done. The wines I compared here were the tart Sauvignon Blanc; the oaky, buttery Chardonnay; the lean, light Beaujolais; and the jammy, oaky Cabernet Sauvignon. I kept things very simple, whisking in some good gelatinous chicken stock once each wine had reduced, and finishing the sauce with some butter.
Sure enough, the same thing I had noticed with the plain dry wines was the biggest factor here as well: Their acidity had the biggest impact on the flavor of the pan sauce. Most notably, the tart Sauvignon Blanc produced a pan sauce that tasted like it had been finished with a squeeze of lemon juice, even though it hadn't. All the others also had a bright, acidic flavor—not as much as the Sauvignon Blanc, but enough not to require any additional acid in the pan sauce.
That doesn't mean all pan sauces made with wine won't need an acid to balance the flavor, since that depends on the types and quantities of each ingredient in the sauce, but it supports the observation that a wine's acidity, above almost all else (aside from sugar), will have the biggest flavor impact.
As for the pan sauces made from the red wines, they were incredibly similar. I had my girlfriend Kate blind taste them, and she was unable to distinguish between the two. Not only that, but the differences between the red- and white-wine-based sauces were more subtle than one might expect: While she could distinguish between them when tasting blind (literally blind, since the color is a dead giveaway), the only clear clue, she said, was the difference in acidity.
Long Cooking With Wine (Including Flawed Wines and Faux Wine): Braising
I've been working on a recipe for coq au vin, the Burgundian classic of chicken braised in red wine, and thought it was a good opportunity to explore wine choices in long-cooked dishes.
Traditionally, coq au vin is made with red Burgundy wine, which is made from Pinot Noir grapes, but Burgundy is so expensive that it's not really an option for cooking unless you can afford to burn money. Instead I experimented with five different wine types: a fake cooking "Wine Product," which is low in alcohol and made from a blend of table wine, juice, salt, and other additives; an inexpensive lighter bodied red; an inexpensive full-bodied, oaky and tannic red; a medium-bodied boxed wine; and a bottle of spoiled red wine that had been sitting open on my counter for two weeks.
- The "wine product" is disgusting stuff, and, as you can probably imagine, made a rendition of coq au vin that couldn't be less appealing, creating a braise with a fake fruity flavor that didn't even hint of tasting like wine.
- The lighter red produced good results, creating a braise with a fruity, pleasant flavor.
- The heavier, oaky red made a sauce that was slightly more astringent than the lighter one, but the differences were subtle and it was still tasty.
- The boxed wine, a red blend with a medium body also produced a perfectly good wine sauce for the braise.
- The old, spoiled wine, which had begun to smell like acetone while sitting out, also made a braise that tasted good; in this case the off flavors seemed to cook off during the braise.
These tests show that while there's some truth to the rule of cooking only with wine you'd be willing to drink, it doesn't hold 100% of the time: I sure wouldn't be willing to drink the "wine product," and I wouldn't want to cook with it either, but I also wouldn't want to drink that wine that had sat open for two weeks—it had definitely gone off during that time—and yet, at least in this case, it was fine for cooking.
When it comes to wine, there are many types of faults. The wine can be corked or have heat damage; it can smell of sulfur or vinegary acetic acid; it can be oxidized or smell like paint thinner. I wasn't able to test all types of flawed wine, and some may well risk ruining a dish, but this test showed that while a wine may be past its prime as far as drinking is concerned, there are some circumstances when you can get away with cooking with it.
Cooking With Cheap and Expensive Wines: Fondue
When I was working on my cheese fondue recipe, I played a bit with the wines in it. I tested the recipe with both light, tart Pinot Grigio, and buttery, oaky Chardonnay. And as I wrote in my story, I found little difference between the two flavor-wise, even though very tart wines are, in theory, supposed to help emulsify the cheese sauce better. I also tried both Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay at various price points, from cheap boxed stuff to expensive bottles that ran around $30 each. Once cooked into a cheese sauce, I was unable to appreciate any difference between the cheap boxed-wine version and the expensive bottles. In most instances, it's just not worth paying a premium on wine for cooking: the nuances get cooked out of it and covered up by other ingredients, making quality differences much less important.
Wine-Cooking Rules to Live by
So, after all these tests, where does that leave us? Here are some tips that I think will work in most cases.
- Don't use an off-dry wine when a dry one is called for: The residual sugar in the off-dry wines will completely change the flavor of a dish.
- Don't splurge on wine for cooking: The flavor and aromas that make one wine better than another are largely lost during cooking and layering with other ingredients.
- Consider the wine's acidity: More tart wines will cook down into much more tart foods; this can be desirable in some cases and not desirable in others.
- Don't worry as much about oak and tannin: They can have an impact on the final dish, but not as much as the sugar and acidity of a wine.
- Bad wine can be good to cook with: At least sometimes, flawed wines can produce good results through the transformational power of cooking, but proceed at your own risk because good results aren't guaranteed.
One last tip: Boxed wine will give you some of the best bang for your buck when it comes to cooking wine, and, even more importantly, it gives you the most flexibility, since you can use as small an amount as you want without worrying about having to finish the rest of the box before it goes bad (boxed wines have an internal plastic bag that prevents any leftover wine from coming in contact with air, greatly increasing its useful shelf life). It's what I keep in my kitchen for cooking, and encourage you to do the same.