How Cooking With Wine Transforms Food

The transformative power of wine has made dishes like coq au vin, boeuf Bourguignon and cioppino timeless classics. Its versatility, with both sweet and savory ingredients, make it indispensable in the kitchen.

Why Cook With Wine?

There’s more to cooking with wine than how its flavors merge with other ingredients. Consider how heat affects wine to offer its bouquet, and also how alcohol interacts with other ingredients.

These qualities are what distinguish wine and alcohol in cooking, as opposed to non-alcoholic liquids. It’s often recommended to deglaze with wine rather than water, juice or stock because wine can dissolve both oil- and water-soluble compounds.

While too much booze will dominate a dish, the right proportion will help pull out exciting aromas and flavors. This is how wine can lend a more complex and concentrated flavor to beef stew or steamed mussels.

Whatever you do, avoid supermarket “cooking wines” at all costs. Many have unnecessary added salt, sugar and preservatives, and they don’t offer significant savings in cost over real wine.

It can also help with the texture of dishes: In fondue, for example, wine prevents cheese from becoming stringy or seizing up. In this case, the wine’s tartaric acid binds with the calcium to prevent coagulation. (Tip: If you have a coagulated cheese sauce, try adding a bit of wine.)

You don’t need to cook with the same wine you’ll be having with the meal, but it should be something you would drink. The qualities in bad wine will be accentuated by the cooking process. Conversely, a better wine won’t necessarily make a better dish by default, since many of its subtler complexities are lost or changed in the cooking process.

Whatever you do, avoid supermarket “cooking wines” at all costs. Many have unnecessary added salt, sugar and preservatives, and they don’t offer significant savings in cost over real wine.

As wine cooks, its sugars and acids concentrate. In savory dishes, avoid “jammy” reds and off-dry whites, which can become syrupy and imbalanced.

Dry red or white wines (more on that below) are best for cooking with in most applications, although there are desserts that call for sweet wine. In particular, look for those that are medium- to full-bodied with good acid and little to no oak. Very oaky wines can become bitter when cooked.

Cooking With White Wine
Try whisking a touch of white wine into your scrambled eggs before cooking / Photo by Meg Baggott / Styling by Julia Lea

Does all the alcohol burn off when you cook with wine?

It’s important to remember that when cooking with wine, some alcohol always remains. Alcohol does have a lower boiling point than water (173°F vs. 212°F), so some will evaporate at a faster rate than other liquids in a dish. However, alcohol molecules also bond with water molecules, meaning they won’t all magically disappear at 173°F.

Time is what really drives alcohol out of a dish. When you deglaze a pan or flambé a dessert, about 25 percent of the alcohol burns off immediately, but these quick-heat techniques leave the remaining 75 percent of the alcohol content intact.

When baking as part of a dish, simmering or stirring into another liquid (anything at a higher temperature than alcohol’s 173°F boiling point), alcoholic content is reduced to roughly 40 percent after 15 minutes of cooking. However, evaporation begins to slowing down after this, and decreases by only about 5 percent for every 15 minutes of cooking during the first hour.

Evaporation slows down even further during the second hour, when it now takes roughly 30 minutes to reduce the total amount of alcohol total by another 5%. But after about 2.5 hours of baking, braising or simmering a dish with an alcoholic base, the alcoholic content should be negligible, with at least 95% being cooked out of the dish.

Cooking With Rosé Wine
Spice up desserts or drinks by reducing rosé with sugar and pink peppercorns / Photo by Meg Baggott / Styling by Julia Lea

What dishes benefit from the addition of wine?

While red or white wine is known to benefit soup, stew, sauce and a braise, either can also be used as a poaching liquid for eggs or fish. You can also use it to steam shellfish and cook pasta. Try boiling spaghetti in red wine and tossing it with a bit of sautéed garlic, butter, Parmesan and pine nuts.

Even in traditional dishes, white and red wines can be interchangeable. Coq au Riesling is just as delicious as coq au vin rouge, and meat stews can take on brighter flavors when cooked in white wine as opposed to red.

Try risotto with red wine instead of white for both color and deeper flavor. Provence’s popular meat stew, daube, is usually made with red wine for beef, white for lamb.

Tip: Freeze leftover wine in ice-cube trays for easy use. The reduction in quality won’t be noticeable in the final dish. Store the frozen cubes in an airtight freezer bag until ready to use.

When it comes to dessert, wine can be used on fruit salads, and to macerate or poach fruit. It can also be used as the base liquid in gelatins, cranberry sauce, or reduced and stirred into whipped cream.

In frothy concoctions like the wine custard zabaglione (also known as zabaione or sabayon), the wine’s acidity and alcohol help separate the egg yolks into their component molecules that coat the air bubbles in the dish, stabilizing them for a frothier result, according to food scientist Harold McGee.

Cooking With White Wine

Think of white wine as a supplement for citrus or light broths. Don’t be afraid of very crisp wines, as their brightness is usually welcome in the final dish. Additionally, substituting white wine for red in stews and braises can lighten the dish.

As evidenced by fondue, white wine works well with dairy. Using wine in place of some or all of the vinegar in classic beurre blanc and Béarnaise sauces will make them less acidic and more complex. Wine also adds depth to and cuts the richness of cream-based sauces. You might even want to try whisking a little white wine into your scrambled eggs or omelet before cooking.

Cooking With Red Wine

Red wine can complement beef, pork or veal broths. It’s particularly useful when you want to express a balance between fruit and savoriness, and wine’s natural acidity can help temper richer flavors.

Beware, the tannins in red wine will concentrate during cooking. Generally this won’t be a problem as the tannins bind to the proteins of the dish and won’t overwhelm, but know your dish. You should feel comfortable using a very tannic red in beef stew, but avoid it in cranberry sauce. When all else fails, adding some butter can help smooth out the tannins.

Reduce red wine to a syrup-like consistency and take advantage of its intensified flavor and color. You can mix it in a compound butter to use atop steaks, whisk it into a salad dressing, toss it with vegetables for roasting and stir it into ricotta for blintzes. And on the sweeter side of things, red wine works wonders with berries and chocolate.

Cooking With Rosé

Cooking with rosé can provide some of the qualities of both white and red wine, making it particularly suitable for lighter meats. Try rosé when deglazing a pan of pork chops and apples, or poach white fruit in it to give them some delicate color.

For a versatile syrup for desserts, fruit or cocktails, reduce rosé with sugar and pink peppercorns.

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