I open a fair bit of wine at home—for pleasure, and also because I’m the chef at Cakebread Cellars in California’s Napa Valley, where creating recipes to go with wine is part of my job. There’s often leftover wine sitting in my fridge: stuff that’s too good to waste but no longer terrific for drinking. But rather than let those stoppered bottles fade into refrigerator oblivion, I use them to cook with. For the nights I don’t have leftover wine on hand, I’ve always got a few inexpensive but decent bottles in my pantry.
Wine brings out flavors in all kinds of dishes, and once you know a few ground rules about how and when to add it, you’ll find yourself reaching for a little wine the way you would lemon juice or good vinegar.
The recipes are simple, delicious examples of some of my favorite ways to use wine in cooking: to enrich the steaming broth for a pot of mussels, to make a pan sauce for seared steak, to flavor a slow-cooking onion jam, or to soak some strawberries for a quick and easy dessert.
Wine is a delicious flavoring, but the alcohol needs taming
One of the main reasons to cook with wine is to add acidity to a dish, which in turn brings out other flavors. But because wine also contains alcohol, you usually add it at the start of cooking so the alcohol has a chance to burn off. Splashing wine intoa dish at the end of cooking usually results in an unpleasant raw-wine taste. And warm temperatures accentuate acidity and alcohol (if you’ve ever tasted wine that was served too warm, you’ll know what I mean), which makes it even trickier to use wine well. Nor are all wines right for all foods; a very tannic red, for example, would turn chalky in a pan-sauce reduction. Learning how to handle wine and heat, as well as learning which wines work best in cooking, opens up loads of new cooking possibilities.
If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. The first thing to know about cooking with wine is that heat won’t improve the undesirable qualities of bad wine: it will accentuate them. Cook with something you wouldn’t mind drinking, whose flavors, ideally, tie in with the wine that you’re actually drinking with the meal. Conversely, heat kills the subtle nuances in complex wine, so save that 1985 single-vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for drinking. If you want to use the leftovers from a special bottle, fine, but be aware that the subtle flavors you tasted in the glass won’t survive cooking.
Young wines with lively fruit notes add the best flavor
When you cook with wine, you’re concentrating the wine flavors and evaporating most of the alcohol. (The longer the cooking, the more alcohol gets evaporated, but according to food scientist Shirley Corriher, even after 2-1/2 hours of simmering, some alcohol does remain in food.)
Whether you’re using red, white, or rosé, young wines with bright fruit notes work best.
Use dry white wines with higher acidity. These are also known in wine parlance as “crisp.” Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Sémillon, and dry sparkling wines are especially good because of their bright citrus and green apple notes. Fuller whites with strong, oaky flavors, like some Chardonnays, don’t work as well for cooking. They’re lower in acidity and don’t lend as much punch as crisper wines. When reduced, oaky, buttery flavors turn bitter and don’t add anything pleasant to a dish.
White wine is a pantry staple for most cooks, and it’s really versatile. Use it to deglaze the brown bits for a pan sauce for sautéed fish, chicken, pork, or mushrooms. Use it in risotto for a good touch of acidity. Add it to a pot of shellfish just before you put the lid on for steaming. Pour a splash into a court bouillon for steeping salmon, bass, or flounder.
Use dry red wines with moderate tannins. Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese (the main grape in Chianti), and lighter-style Cabernet are all good. As with white wines, the acidity will punch up other flavors in the dish. A young red’s berry-like, red-fruit flavors add depth and zing, provided there’s not too much tannin or oak to overshadow those flavors. Be aware that very full-bodied reds—big Cabernets, Syrahs, Barolos—that contain big tannins can leave an almost chalky taste when the wine is reduced.
Add red wine to slow-cooking stews or tomato sauces. Use it for pan sauces for seared lamb, duck, chicken, or beef. You can even use red wine for flavoring desserts; I’ll get to that in a moment.
When to add the wine
To get the best flavor and to make sure the alcohol is cooked off, here’s when to add the wine:
• For stews, braises, or long-simmering tomato sauces, add wine early in the simmering stage, after you’ve browned the meat and vegetables. Let the wine reduce a bit and then add the other liquids. Some cooks add a small dash of red wine near the end of cooking to deepen a slow-simmering tomato ragù, but only if the wine is top-flight.
• For pan sauces, add the wine after you’ve set the meat aside to rest. Reduce the wine to a syrupy consistency, scraping up any browned bits. Add any other liquid, such as cream or stock, and reduce again. Whisk in a tablespoon or two of butter, if you like.
• For marinades, add the wine with all the other marinade ingredients. The marinade can also be used as the base for a sauce. Make sure the sauce is brought to a boil and cooked down thoroughly.
• In risotto, add the wine after the onions are soft and the rice has been added and lightly toasted in the butter. Make sure the wine is almost completely cooked off before you start adding broth.
• For a sauté of shrimp or scallops, add the wine after the initial searing but before the fish is cooked through, so there’s time for the wine to reduce.
Use raw wine, but prudently
You can’t usually add wine to a dish without cooking it down. That said, there are a couple of exceptions.
Raw wine works best in cold preparations, where the chill softens the alcohol’s edge. The recipe for Strawberries in Red Wine works because the dish is served cold, and because the sugar and berry juices soften the wine. Raw wines work well in marinades, too, of course, where the marinade can then be used as the base for a cooked sauce.
Sweet wines should rarely be cooked: the sugars will intensify, and those lovely perfumy nuances will be killed. A dash of Sauternes, late-harvest Riesling, or other sweet wine can be a delicious flavoring for custard sauces, sorbets, and even fruit salads. When you’re cooking with sweet wine, add it toward the end of cooking to preserve its subtleties.
A final word: skip the “cooking wine” you see on supermarket shelves. It contains salt, it tastes terrible, and a bottle of drinkable wine is only a few dollars more. And if you only use a quarter of a bottle of nice wine, think of the delicious leftovers you’ll have.