Monday, June 10, 2013

Some Thoughts on Cooking with Wine

You’ll often find me in the kitchen cooking with a bottle of wine, and as the old adage goes, some of it actually makes it into the food. Seriously, though, wine is the sine quo non of many dishes, and it certainly enhances many more.  If a recipe calls for it, make sure you use it.  Wine does many things to the food:  it adds a rich, tangy flavor, the booze in it releases alcohol-soluble flavors that wouldn’t be present otherwise, and it adds aroma, color and ambiance. 

But this little treatise here I’m writing is for one reason:  To dispel a myth I encounter from time to time in recipes and cooking magazines.  The statement in question usually goes something like this:

“When cooking with wine, always use a good wine.  If you wouldn’t drink it, why would you cook with it?”

Or something like that.  I find that statement sad and misleading.  It is sad and misleading because it may well lead people to believe that one has to use a really good, expensive bottle of wine in their cooking, and this couldn’t be further from the case.  

Good bottles of wine are meant to be drunk with the food, not go into it.  Not that you will hurt your food by using a good bottle.  It’s just that you’re wasting it.  And that makes me sad.  It’s like using Pellegrino to fill your radiator.  When you take a good bottle of wine and cook with it, you’re not imparting all that subtle goodness to your pot of spaghetti sauce or coq au vin, you’re instead sending a worthy, nuanced drinking companion straight to hell, and you’re missing out on all those subtle flavors that wine snobs like to go on about.  You’re boiling them straight out into the ether—they ain’t going into your food.

But, you say, my friend says if I use cheap wine to cook with, it says something about me, and possibly about the other ingredients I use.  Maybe if I use cheap wine, people will think I use cheap everything.

I’ll answer this a few ways.  First, the final flavor of your dish is all that matters.  Most of your guests, unless you’re running a cooking show out of your kitchen or writing a food blog, are never gonna see your prep, so don’t worry.  Second, there is a time to splurge and a time when price doesn’t matter.  With things like steak, buying USDA prime is gonna taste a whole lot better than that T-bone you saw at the discount grocery store.  Buying vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes at a farmer’s market are gonna taste so much better than the bland little uniform nodules at the grocery store that were picked green and gassed to make them look ripe. 

So yes, for most things in cooking, buy the freshest, finest ingredients you can find.  But my point here is, with wine, you don’t need to.  If you do, you’re just wasting good stuff that could have been consumed by the glassful.  In almost all cases, stick with two buck chuck, or at least a boxed wine, for cooking.  (A lot of fine restaurants use Franzia in their kitchens)

But, you say, What about, “if you wouldn’t drink it, why would you cook with it?”

I’ll answer this by asking, would you drink vinegar?  Probably not.  But would you cook with it?  Certainly. 

If you’re still doubting me, here’s a simple experiment you can do to prove matters for yourself.  Buy a nice, expensive bottle of your favorite wine, spending maybe $30 to $40 dollars.  Then buy a bottle of two buck chuck.  Place a cup of the fine wine in a saucepan, heat, and reduce it to a few tablespoons.

Taste it.  Now do the same with the two buck chuck.  I think you’ll find that, after going through the crucible of your saucepan, they taste quite similar.  Something along the lines of a savory, overtly tangy, thick wine syrup.  See, there’s a reason they keep wine in cellars.  Heat destroys the subtle flavors of wine and eventually makes it go bad.  You are of course not making wine ‘go bad’ when you cook with it, as far as eating it in a dish is concerned, but when you think about it this way, you’re certainly taking the drinkability out of that fine, expensive bottle of wine.  It’s almost like your turning it into....two buck chuck.  So why not just use the chuck in the first place.  Drink the expensive stuff. 

A few codicils to this:  Make sure you taste the wine before you cook with it.  If it is corked or has otherwise gone rancid, you might not want to use it.   Also, steer clear of that stuff the grocery store sells called cooking wine, as this is heavily salted so that it can be sold without the normal alcohol restrictions.   You always want to keep strict control over the salt content of your food, so don’t go dumping this stuff into your dish.   Finally, if you are prepping a dish like a dessert or something that you do not heat, this is the one time I might splurge and get something a bit more on the finer side, since you won’t be cooking most of the flavor out of it. 

On a final note:  One good way to keep, decent, cheap wine on hand for cooking is the much maligned ‘box’ of wine.  

I'll probably get flamed for this, but...Franzia Burgundy, a perfectly good cooking wine.  It's affordable, and since it’s sealed up in a bag inside the box, it won’t oxidize or spoil on you, and you can use only what you need for the dish you are making.   (As I mentioned above, lots of restaurants use this sort of wine for cooking)  Of course, you’ll need some for you yourself to drink while you’re cooking.  So open a bottle of the good stuff for're gonna need some with dinner anyway.  

Until next time,

In Vino Veritas,


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