Wine may be as versatile as any ingredient in the kitchen. Even for those who eschew drinking the stuff, fermented grape juice can enhance all manner of proteins, vegetables and desserts. It can work in quick sautés or hourslong braises, sauce-making or baking.
And it’s a lot less complicated to choose and use in the kitchen than to figure out what to buy and drink among countless options in a restaurant or store.
Of course, there are some general guidelines:
Don’t use second-rate wine. Wine is an ingredient, and a dish is generally only as strong as its weakest link. Disagreeable flavors in the wine will, of course, show up in the food. As Duxoup winemaker Andy Cutter, an Anoka native, notes, “Never use crummy wine while cooking, because all it does is cook off the alcohol, and the only thing good about crummy wine is the alcohol.”
Do not buy the stuff called “cooking wine.” It’s invariably subpar juice, often loaded with additives. Plus you have no idea how old it is, and it actually is more expensive per ounce than a lot of decent “real” wine. Speaking of which …
Don’t turn up your nose at inexpensive wine. Ever-improving boxed wines can be ideal for cooking, and an $8 to $12 bottle — or yes, Three-Buck Chuck — is a swell option if you like the wine and are good with consuming what you don’t use before or during the meal. There’s rarely reason to reach for more expensive wine, unless the dish calls for a half-cup or less and you want to sip away at the rest of the bottle that evening.
Stay away from wine that was opened more than a couple of days ago. Good cooks wouldn’t toss in herbs that had turned brown, and calling on wine that has faded or even gone bad will not produce pleasant results. An occasional exception: If a recipe calls for red- or white-wine vinegar, you might be able to substitute the wine, but smell and taste it first.
Wine does indeed eventually turn into vinegar. That points to one of the main reasons it is such a useful culinary tool: the acidity. In fact, whites and reds with more acidity (pinot gris/grigio, Sangiovese, pinot noir) tend to work better than “bigger” wines (domestic chardonnay, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon). They can add a jolt to richer sauces and dishes, in much the same way vinegar complements oil in a vinaigrette.
It’s worth striving for a similar balance between wine and oil in marinades, and between wine and other fats (butter, cream) in sauces and gravies. Too much wine can overpower a dish. In a way, it’s like salt on steak: It can heighten the flavors of the meat, but if you can taste the salt, you’ve used too much.
Then there’s the matter of alcohol and the notion that the cooking process burns off the alcohol. That’s largely (but not completely) true with multi-hour braises, stews and soups, but not so much in briefer cooking.
Just over a decade ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture research found that the alcohol content falls to 40 percent of its original level in the first 15 minutes, 25 percent after an hour, 5 percent after 2 hours and to a negligible (at most) amount after 4 hours. All of which is worth keeping in mind, depending on who will be eating the food.
However, since wine tends to be low in alcohol anyway, the content of only the wine in the dish will be around 4 percent of alcohol after an hour and less than 1 percent after 2 hours. And the wine is already a small portion of the overall contents.
Some tips for cooking methods:
Marinades: The tannins and acid in wine can break down the toughness in some cuts, and they will tenderize all meats. But it should be utilized for just a few hours to reduce the risk of it making the meat “gamey.” If you want to baste the dish with any leftover marinade in contact earlier with the raw meat, bring the marinade to a boil and simmer it before you reapply it to the meat.
Soups and stews: Unless the wine is a leading player (coq au vin, beef bourguignon), go easy on the quantity. For soups, red wines work better with meat or root-vegetable concoctions, white with other vegetables. Figure on 2 tablespoons per cup of broth or stock — but be ready, especially with seafood soups, to add a dash of fortified wine such as Madeira, Marsala or sherry toward the end. Figure on 1/4 cup of wine for each pound of meat in a stew — then maybe add a bit of the (ostensibly better) wine you’re drinking with the meal toward the end.
Pan sauces: Here’s where wines can really shine. Madeira makes any dish with fowl sing. Crisp whites rock with pork, chicken and seafood, and red wines work with steaks and/or the mushrooms to top them. Of course, red wine can seriously enrich a longer-cooking traditional spaghetti sauce.
In all these dishes, wine works not as the centerpiece, but as a complement.
8 more simple, straightforward ways that wine can punch up a meal:
1. Red wine left over from the night before? Use it for poaching eggs.
2. When steaming mussels, use 1/2 cup of good wine — red, white or especially bubbles.
3. Sparkling wine with a dash of butter might be the best method for steaming or poaching oysters quickly (no more than a minute).
4. Not all vegetables are meant for braising, but try the technique with red wine and root vegetables, such as turnips, parsnips and rutabagas (or all of them together).
5. The mushroom was made to be sautéed first in butter, then cooked with the addition of a little red or white wine, and possibly finished with a tiny bit of fortified wine.
6. Thanksgiving gravy brings out the perfectionist in all of us, and some Madeira or a hearty white can get us there.
7. For a simple roast, put down a layer of root vegetables, place the meat on top and pour 1/2 cup or so of fortified wine onto the meat, then 1/2 cup or so of water onto the vegetables to keep them moist. Later you will have the best gravy ever.
8. Even dessert is better with wine: Try peeled pears poached in simmering wine that has been infused with baking spices.