Can You Drink Cooking Wine?
Let's uncork the details of cooking wine (versus cooking with wine).
Lots of favorite recipes call for wine. But what is the best wine for cooking? If you have a dusty bottle of Sherry lurking at the back of your cupboard as your go-to cooking wine (Here’s looking at you, Grandma!) or think of cooking wine as the cheap stuff that is not fit for drinking, you’re not alone. It wasn’t until I took cooking classes that I learned that culinary authorities recommend that you only cook with wine that you’d drink.
It makes sense, since all cooking ingredients impart some flavor or characteristic on the final dish — that wine should be good enough to augment the rest of the ingredients. With that in mind, steer clear of bottles labeled “cooking wine,” as they’re loaded with preservatives and salt, which can negatively alter the taste of finished dish. And since many bottles labelled as such are often found in the same grocery store aisle as vinegar, they’re not exactly made for sipping. Instead, a good rule of thumb when cooking with wine is to select your bottle from the wine section of the grocery store or hit up your local wine shop.
But this doesn’t mean you should break the bank on a Burgundy to make beef Bourguignon.
Since wine is a living thing, the cooking process neutralizes many of the subtle nuances in flavor or character. Aim to pick something that’s drinkable and moderately priced, but not splurge-worthy. You’ll still retain the main characteristic you’re after, namely acidity, which helps break down tougher cuts of meat when used as a marinade and yields a tender texture in slow-simmering stews and braised dishes. Wine’s acidity can also help keep more delicate proteins or ingredients tender and moist when used in poaching or steaming preparations.
What matters more than the wine’s price tag, is when you add the wine to the dish. If it’s going into a braise or a sauce, add it before you add your stock or other liquid and cook it down so that it reduces, allowing most of the alcohol to burn off (or your dish will end up tasting wine-y). And when you use wine to deglaze a pan, wine helps dissolve the fond (those tasty brown bits at the bottom of the pan) better than water or stock because it can break down oil-soluble compounds.
When wine gets cooked, its flavor becomes concentrated so it can also impart sweetness (in dishes both sweet and savory), and other flavor characteristics like earthiness. Broadly speaking, dry red and white wines are recommended for savory dishes. For recipes calling for red wine, opt for crowd-pleasers like Merlot, Pinot Noir or Côtes du Rhône Cabernet; for whites, crisp whites like Sauvignon Blanc are good bets. Sweet wines, such as Sauternes or sweet Riesling, are usually reserved for desserts. Whether cooking with red or white wine, avoid oak-y wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay) as these can become bitter when cooked.
Other wines have their place in cooking too. Rosé wines can bring a burst of acidity in place of vinegar in condiments such as mignonette (which typically calls for red vinegar), and champagne is often used alongside sweet Marsala (a fortified wine) in sabayon, a custardy sauce that’s perfect for dolloping onto fruit or pastries. Speaking of Marsala, if you’ve been using “cooking wine Marsala” for your chicken Marsala, swapping in a bottle of actual sweet Marsala is a total game-changer and adds a rich, nutty, caramelized flavor to the sauce.
Bottom line: skip the “cooking wine” and pick out a decent bottle (read: good, not great), then head to your kitchen to make some of our favorite cooking-with-wine recipes. Some call for a whole bottle, but most, handily, leave enough for a very generous chef’s glass.
Giada’s spaghetti calls for a full bottle of Zinfandel, which the pasta absorbs to add deeply jammy flavors to the spicy, garlicky tomato-based sauce.
Ina calls for one bottle of good red to marinate beef chuck along with aromatics like garlic and bay leaves (but we won’t tell if you save a small glass for yourself!). The leftover marinade is then combined with stock to create a deeply savory broth and tender morsels of beef.
For this low-and-slow braised short ribs recipe, Anne Burrell calls for two to three cups of hearty red wine. By liquid measure there are about three cups of wine in a bottle, so stay closer to the two-cup range if you want a glass to sip while you cook.
This recipe calls for just one cup of dry, red wine—a touch goes into the marinade, but most of it is reduced with sliced plums, helping to create a syrupy, jammy topping for the pork loin chops. Since you’re cooking with fruit here, you can opt for a wine with more pronounced dark- or stone-fruit notes.
This recipe is proof that wine can enhance delicate ingredients too. One tablespoon per parchment packet (a quarter-cup total) is all it takes to help keep the fish moist while it bakes, without overwhelming it with booze. There will be plenty of wine left to sip, so ask a pro to help you pick one out that can double as a pairing for the meal.