What's the Difference Between Cooking Wine and Regular Wine?

Our top tips for selecting, cooking with and drinking wine — they're more straightforward than you might guess.

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Photo by: Adrian Assalve ©Adrian Assalve

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The main difference between cooking wine and wine that you drink is quality. But just as a fine wine has subtle nuances, so too does the definition of cooking wine. Here's a primer and a few tips to help you compare, well, grapes to grapes, and make the most out of cooking with wine (hint: save yourself a chef's glass).

Avoid the stuff labeled "cooking wine"

When it comes to cooking with wine, avoid bottles labeled "cooking wine." Cooking wine isn't anything you'd want to cook with — it's loaded with preservatives, sweeteners and salt, which can make your final dish taste overly sweet, salty or even metallic.

Abide by this rule of thumb: Cook only with wine that you'd drink. Your first tipoff that bottles labeled "cooking wine" aren't fit to drink is that they're usually shelved near the vinegars and salad dressings in your local grocery store. Your best bet is to select a bottle from the wine section of your grocery store, or better yet, your local wine shop.

"The quality of cooking wine is so low … you have to remember that you're putting that in your body and in your dishes, so it's well worth it to spend the extra money to get a wine that'll really represent the dish," says Maria Rust, the wine director and founder of Somm Time Wine Bar in New York City. "If you really want to cook well, it's worth [making] a trip to the liquor store and getting a proper wine from people who do proper winemaking."

Pick a "good" bottle

Cooking with a good wine can really bring the wow factor to a dish, but you don't need to break the bank. Since many of wine's subtle characteristics burn off when cooked, it doesn't make sense to splurge on a fancy bottle for that batch of boeuf bourguignon.

For cooking, look for a wine that's moderately priced. While wine is an ingredient like any other and you should buy the best you can afford, rest assured that even chefs aren't cooking with $40 bottles.

"There's so much good wine out there for $10 to $15," Rust says. "Find something decent — a nice Sangiovese from Tuscany that retails for $10 to $12, or a nice clean, crisp white wine like Pinot Grigio or even a Muscadet. You want flavor but nothing too huge."

Understand what wine brings to the dish

The main thing wine provides in cooking is acidity, which helps break down tougher cuts of meat when used in a marinade or keeps them tender in longer-duration cooking methods like braising. Wine's acidity also helps more delicate ingredients stay tender and moist in quicker-cooking recipes, such as poached vegetables or steamed fish.

As wine cooks, its flavor becomes concentrated, so it also lends savoriness or sweetness to a dish. Generally, dry red and white wines are recommended for savory dishes. Whether cooking with red or white wine, avoid oaky wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay), as these become bitter when cooked.

Save sweet wines, such as Sauternes, Moscato or sweet Riesling, for dessert recipes such as poached pears.

Get more bang for your buck

Cooking with the same wine you're going to serve with the meal is a way to get more bang for your buck (provided that the recipe doesn't call for the whole bottle), which is particularly nice if you're shelling out closer to $15 a bottle.

Rust follows this philosophy for some of the wine-based dishes on Somm Time's small-plates menu. The Chianti used to bolster meatballs in a rich tomato sauce is also a fine match for sipping, as its acidity cuts nicely through the dish's richness. When Rust makes risotto at home, she'll often use something from her list, like a Muscadet or Pinot Grigio. (But if she's cooking risotto the traditional way, she'll spend a little more on a bottle of Amarone.)

Use it up

After you open a bottle, Rust recommends storing leftover wine in the fridge and either drinking or cooking with it within in four days. Otherwise, it'll oxidize (or go bad).

"Oxidization goes into the dish as well, so you can get this musty, nutty, almost sherry quality, too," she explains. In other words, if the wine goes bad, it will impart those undesirable flavors into the dish, too. If you ask us, that's another good reason to pour yourself a chef's glass or serve the wine with dinner.

Fortify your repertoire: oxidized and fortified wines

Some wines, most notably sherry, are oxidized on purpose, to bring nutty, complex flavors into them. A dry sherry can lend a pleasing nuttiness to savory dishes, for example — but again, the key is to pick something that you'd actually want to drink. The wine should also be one that has been intentionally oxidized by the winemaker (rather than oxidizing a bottle of red and letting it go bad in your fridge to bring nuttiness to a dish).

Fortified wines are another category that can be useful in cooking. As Harold McGee explains in his book On Food and Cooking, fortified wines are so named because the strength of the base wine is bolstered by the addition of distilled spirits to bring the alcohol level to 18 to 20%. This is a level that prevents spoilage, so winemakers can expose these wines to air for months or years to derive more desirable flavor profiles from oxidization. They also keep for much longer, up to a month or even two in some cases, as long as they're refrigerated.

Two types of fortified wines most commonly called for in recipes are Madeira and Marsala. They're also a common source of confusion, because you'll often notice bottles of "cooking Madeira wine" and "cooking Marsala wine" in the grocery store.

"Many people have never heard of Madeira or the tiny group of islands from which it hails," says Michael Corcoran, the sommelier at Peppervine, a Charlotte, North Carolina, restaurant lauded for its wine service. "These wines are often not cheap and can be tricky to find in some markets. Don't use cooking Madeira! It's just gross."

Another thing Corcoran says you should consider when buying Madeira is the sweetness level: Sercial is dry, Verdelho is off-dry, Bual is sweet, and Malmsey is very sweet. "When cooking with Madeira, the wine will reduce and get even sweeter, so be careful when choosing your bottle," he advises. "Unless you are making a sweet demi-glaze, you'll likely want a Sercial or Verdelho — plus they are less expensive."

The same goes for Marsala, a fortified Italian wine that hails from Sicily, which is available either dry or sweet. Using sweet Marsala lends a rich, nutty, almost caramelized flavor to mushroom sauces in dishes like chicken Marsala. Sweet Marsala can also be used in desserts, as with zabaglione, a classic custard sauce that's a fine match for fresh berries. Employ dry Marsala to deglaze a pan of roasted shellfish or meatier fish to add a savory depth to the sauce.

Another fortified wine to keep on hand is Port, which enriches sweet sauces that pair nicely with chocolate desserts or can be drizzled over cheese — and then sipped with the same dessert or cheese.

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