You May Also Substitute Vermouth


Photographs: Blake Royer

Because it spoils quickly and most people store it improperly, dry vermouth has acquired an unsavory reputation over the years. With a little care, however, it can go from stand-in to starring role in recipes and drinks. The Paupered Chef duo on storage and use—including a recipe for mussels.

Unfortunately, it's where vermouth often ends up in recipes in parentheses, after white wine, in the same category as bouillon cubes for chicken stock. You know, in case the wine store is suddenly closed, and absolutely nothing fresh is available, then it might be passable to use a little of your dusty old vermouth, which is probably stored in the pantry along with your old dried herbs and that bottle of cognac used to bake a pie.

But what if that cheap bottle of vermouth, with a tiny bit of care and affection, served you better than wine? What if was the vermouth you reached for first and not the white wine?

Vermouth is a fortified wine that is flavored or steeped with a collection of herbs, a secret mix that depends on the maker, sometimes numbering 30 or more ingredients. There is sweet vermouth (sometimes called Italian vermouth), and there is dry vermouth, which is what we're interested in, usually French. While a sweet red vermouth can work in a dessert, that very sweetness can overwhelm a savory dish.

Unfortunately, dry vermouth, the key ingredient in a good martini, has an unsteady reputation, often the subject of mocking. Winston Churchill apparently used to bow in the direction of France, eschewing the use of vermouth at all, while making his martinis; Alfred Hitchcock was the wise guy who waved the shaker over the bottle of vermouth and called it a night.

Here's the problem: Most people drink vermouth spoiled. Wine has its own glassware, openers, quick-chillers, vacuum pumps, and cellars. Yet vermouth simply gets screwed shut and stashed in the liquor cabinet to be laid waste by oxygen. With an alcohol level as low as 16 percent (a level many wines reach), it doesn't act like a bottle of whiskey on the shelf. A splash of the vermouth most people know would ruin any drink you could come up with. Yet thus vermouth stays, stashed near the olive oil. What usually comes out is pale, flat, and in the worst cases, bitter and acrid.

It doesn't take much. Vermouth isn't a delicate wine, and we're not advocating the creation of Vermouth Spectator, encouraging you to stick your nose into the glass. What we would like to advocate is that you place your bottle in the fridge. Pump if you have the time, but by chilling it, you'll be able to enjoy that spirit for almost six months, if you don't happen to drink it first. Which, with some help, is what we're trying to encourage you to do.

Because of the myriad of botanicals in vermouth, it can't always replace white wine in a recipe. But for certain meals, especially seafood, a splash of the stuff can be a revelation. For example, mussels.

We were interested in the absolute simplest presentation of a vermouth, using a technique that would highlight its particular taste. With the minimum of elements of unsalted butter, diced celery and onion, a few thyme leaves, and three pounds of mussels, we compared the relative flavor and power that $8 of booze could impart. A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in one hand, and a bottle of the ubiquitous Noilly Prat vermouth in the other.

The results, judged by a panel of three tasters, were quietly staggering. The preparation using wine had a nice simplicity but fell mostly flat without the benefit of more aggressive spicing and aromatics. We've made mussels probably dozens of times, combined them with everything from leeks, chorizo, tomatoes, heavy cream, and even a rather expensive bottle of champagne. Our thought was that the tastier the broth, the better the dish, even if it didn't necessarily complement the actual mussels.

But the vermouth, with almost no help, lent our dish an herby, deep, surprisingly fishy taste, something you'd get after simmering and reducing for long periods of time. We did almost nothing to achieve it. It was no real surprise that the vermouth had more flavor; that was never in question. What was remarkable, however, was just how perfect it was for that dish, bringing in sweet accents and lots of salty freshness.

We also tested the same ingredients with a bottle of Vya dry vermouth, made by a little company in California, and one of the many artisanal vermouths popping up. It had a richer, noticeably sweeter taste, which we loved. The Noilly Prat, however, seemed ripe for exploration with other ingredients.

We couldn't agree on which vermouth we liked better, but we both agreed the cheap bottle of Noilly Prat was remarkable. It was especially interesting considering that the 750 ml bottle cost around $8 and would last in the fridge until the next time we needed its magic. That is, if we could avoid drinking it over ice in the afternoon. Or mixing it equally with sweet vermouth to make a French Kiss. Which happens to be one of the most refreshing things you can do with it in summer.


The Paupered Chef's Mussels
- serves 2 as a light dinner -

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the mussels over low heat. Add 1/2 cup each diced celery and onion and 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves; allow to soften, but not brown, for 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup dry vermouth and 1 pound mussels, raising the heat to high. Close tightly with a lid, shake the pan, and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Check the mussels; they should be open and fragrant (discard any that do not open). Transfer mussels to a shallow bowl; reduce broth 2 to 3 minutes. Pour over mussels, and serve with crusty bread.