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Cooking With Wine

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Home cooks fall into some surprisingly common pratfalls when it comes to cooking with wine—and pop an awful lot of questions, too. 

Do you need to buy special cooking wine? If a recipe calls for a Pinot Noir, but you have a Chianti on hand, must you run out and buy the Pinot? And when you cook with any wine, will the resulting food taste…alcoholic? Is there any alcohol left, or does it all burn off? 

In his book, What Einstein Told His Cook, author Robert Wolke dispels maybe the latter, most common vino misconception: Does the alcohol burns off? 

Yes and no. It depends, writes Wolke, on how high your temperature is, how long the dish needs to cook, how much alcohol you’ve added, if your pot or pan was covered or not, and even the width of it. In essence, a good portion of the alcohol (which is already low in the case of wine—generally, between 12 and 14 percent, give or take) will indeed burn off, but there will be some remaining in the dish. 

“Flambéing removes about 25 percent of the original alcohol. Simmering on the stovetop for 30 minutes evaporates about 65 percent of the alcohol. And 2½ hours of simmering removes about 95 percent,” says chef John Ash, one of the fathers of wine country cuisine and owner of his eponymous restaurant in Santa Rosa, Calif.. 

What home cooks tend to miss, though, he offers, is what alcohol adds. “Alcohol, be it in wine, beer, or hard liquor, is a powerful flavor extractor. For example, we use alcohol to extract flavor from vanilla beans, and the reward is vanilla extract,” writes Ash, who also sits on the faculty of the Professional Wine Studies Program at the Culinary Institute of America in Greystone, Calif. “This ability of alcohol to extract and carry flavors makes it a great asset for cooks.” 

“Wine can add brightness to vegetable dishes and deep concentration to meat dishes. What it always gives is fresh and complex acidity. Don't be afraid to use it!” proclaims chef and winemaker David Page, owner with his wife, Barbara Shinn, of Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck, Long Island. 

But part of the befuddlement of many a home cooks get bundled up in sometimes is which wine to use. 

For starters, a good rule of thumb is this: If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. Avoid buying so-called “cooking wines” –rife with salt and food coloring. Yuck. Instead, take a cue from Page’s rule book on the matter: “Barbara and my vineyard life is centered around what we eat and drink. Our economic philosophy is that we can pay for quality now or pay the doctor later. There is plenty of good value wine around these days so there is no reason to adulterate your food with plonk.” 

Indeed, one the great things about our global village (and, well, an upshot to the recession) is the shelves are full of $10 and under bottles that are equally good for sipping and cooking. “There are plenty of reasonably priced wines out there that are fine for cooking,” says winemaker and author of The Winemaker Cooks (Chronicle Books), Christine Hanna of Hanna Winery and Vineyards

Still, there are some good guidelines to follow that she happily pours out when asked. For instance, if a recipe calls for, say, Burgundy specifically, or gives you less-direct instructions, such as “use a dry white wine.” And you don’t have the former, or aren’t really sure what qualifies as the latter, Hanna breaks it down: “Pinot Noir is the New World version of Red Burgundy, a French wine made from Pinot Noir. You can also substitute medium-bodied wines like Chianti, or Sangiovese [which is the main red grape varietal in Chianti wines],” she advises. 

Click here for her recipe for Chardonnay Gravy

And as to the question of dryness, Hanna offers this: “Sauvignon Blanc is extremely versatile for cooking, and falls squarely in the dry white wine category. Pinot Grigio works well, too. In terms of reds, I try to stay away from very tannic and oaky reds like Cabernet Sauvignon. The oak and tannins concentrate in the cooking process, and take over the [flavors] dish. I prefer using a Merlot or Syrah if a dish calls for a robust red. In general, lighter wines tend to work best in cooking. You're looking to add acidity with wine, and not overwhelm with the wine's flavor.” 

Ash, however, believes it’s also a matter of simply getting comfortable with the terminology. “I don't think this is necessarily vague,” he says, when asked about discerning dry from fruity or sweet. “It gives you wide latitude to use whatever you have that fits the broad parameter. Ultimately, wine's contribution is a subtle one except in the case of dishes like Coq au Vin where a lot of wine is used to contribute a bit of flavor.” 

Still, Page says, a little knowledge can often be the best flavor-enhancer: “I once made the mistake of using a very sweet and aromatic wine in a delicate shellfish preparation. The wine immediately overwhelmed the sauce I was putting together,” he says. “I learned that it is important to consider the balance between fat and acid, sweet and savory, when choosing a wine for cooking. There are however exceptions. A very tightly reduced red wine glaze can offer beautiful contrast to delicate scallops and fish. In this case a tiny amount of glaze goes a very long way.” 

Like little red-shoed Dorothy at the beginning of the yellow-brick road, though, everyone’s got to start somewhere. With this in mind, Hanna offers the following bits of wine-cooking wisdom to get you off on the right foot instead of lost in the vines. 

“I try to stay away from heavily oaked wines. Once you concentrate that flavor in cooking, it really takes over the dish. Unoaked white wines and lightly oaked reds tend to be less expensive anyway.” Hanna also cautions that older isn’t wiser (or, in this case, tastier). 

“If an opened bottle has been sitting on your kitchen counter for weeks, don't use it,” she says. “By that time, the wine has oxidized and will show off odors and flavors, which will detract from your dish. I keep leftover wine, white and red, in the fridge. I can use that wine for cooking for at least five days. After that, dump it.” 

But Page perhaps has the best advice of all: Loosen up and trust yourself. 

“Use intuition and your own experience, likes, and dislikes to make your choices,” he says. “Have fun!” And, perhaps, keep a corkscrew handy at all times.