Fortified wines were created for after-dinner sipping, but they have also secured their place in the kitchen. With personalities that range from dry and fine, to smoky-caramel, to rich and raisiny and sweet, fortified wines add elegant distinction to all kinds of savory dishes and desserts.
Port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala, the most familiar types of fortified wines, share a key production technique: each gets a boost of brandy or pure alcohol during or after fermentation. The timing of the addition determines how sweet the fortified wine will be: the earlier it’s added, the sweeter the wine will be. On the dry side: Fino sherry, Sercial Madeira, and secco (Italian for dry) Marsala. On the sweet side: cream and Amoroso sherry, Boal and Malmsey Madeira, dolce (Italian for sweet) Marsala. All ports—whether vintage (the best and most expensive), tawny, or ruby (the lowest quality and least expensive)—are sweet.
From the driest sherry to the deepest port, fortified wines have long been considered particularly appropriate when paired with meats, game, game birds, poultry, and shellfish. Classic dishes such as lobster Thermidor just wouldn’t be the same without a shot of dry sherry. And dishes as disparate as veal Marsala and zabaglione need their lifeblood, Marsala, to give them their distinct sweet and slightly smoky flavor.
Whether cooking a classic or inventing your own, a splash of a fortified wine is a welcome addition to a finished soup or a simmering stew or sauce. I usually add it toward the end of cooking and then simmer it for a few minutes to remove any raw alcohol flavor and to marry the flavors of the wine with the soup or stew.
Fortified wines also do a neat turn before cooking as a marinade. I like to marinate lamb in a mixture of Madeira, garlic, and rosemary. And a ham braised in Madeira or Marsala, along with some broth, is a lovely thing.
On the sweet side, choose sweet sherry, Marsala, or port to flavor mousses, puddings, soufflés, and dessert sauces. Drizzle them over fruit, flavor a sugar syrup with them and brush the syrup over cake layers, or whip the wine with eggs and sugar into an airy custard.
Experiment with fortified wines
• Stir some dry sherry into shellfish bisques or cream of chicken soup.
• Sauté chicken with onions, red peppers, tomatoes, paprika, and chopped ham and deglaze the pan with sherry.
• Steam mussels with some dry sherry, garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs.
• Stir a little Madeira into caramelized onions for a savory tart topping.
• Sauté chicken livers or calf’s liver with onions and deglaze the pan with Madeira or sherry.
• Brush a berry tart with a berry glaze flavored with Madeira or Marsala.
• Flavor a caramel sauce with sweet Madeira or Marsala.
• Enrich a tomato or bolognese sauce with a splash of dry Marsala.
• Stir a spoonful of dry Marsala into mashed sweet potatoes or butternut squash.
• Braise lamb shanks in vegetable stock and port.
• Drizzle port over fresh strawberries.
Use decent versions for cooking
In cooking, as in drinking, authentic versions offer the most satisfying character and flavor. To be sure you’re buying the genuine article, look for the country of origin on the label: sherry from Spain; Madeira from the island of the same name off the coast of Portugal; Marsala from Sicily, and port from Portugal. A decent bottle—you probably don’t want to use a vintage port in your onion soup—will cost $10 to $15. If that seems expensive for cooking wine, keep in mind that a little goes a long way. And unlike regular wine, which is best used within a day or two, a bottle of opened fortified wine can happily reside on a pantry shelf for at least a year with no loss in quality. Instead of opening a whole bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to deglaze the pan in which I seared some steaks, I can use a little port instead.
Just remember that a fortified wine has a stronger flavor: while a regular wine whispers hello in most dishes, a fortified wine shouts its greeting. If you use sherry in place of white wine in a chicken dish, you’ll definitely taste the sherry. On the other hand, sherry, Marsala, and Madeira can be used almost interchangeably; the flavors are different, but they share the same intensity.