Cooking Wines

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 2nd, 2012 | Ask the Chef

I have read that cooking wine should never be used; some people even compare it to vinegar. I’ve also read that only wine that you would drink should be used in your cooking. However, is there anything wrong with using a less expensive wine, such as a 3 Buck Chuck, to make a sauce or to braise?

Ah, Trader Joe’s wines are gone up in price, haven’t they? I remember when it was “two buck chuck.” But it’s good value for money – their house wines lack nuance, but they’re fine to drink. That means they’re fine to cook with, too. It’s true you should never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink.

How do you think a glass of wine with a teaspoon of salt in it would taste? That’s the about the amount of salt that’s in a cup of cooking wine. How else is it possible to sell it where underage shoppers can buy it? It’s not a problem, because cooking wine is undrinkable.

Some restaurant owners or chefs, it’s said, took to salting the kitchen’s wine so the staff wouldn’t drink it. However, Prohibition had more to do with it. From 1920 to 1933 in the US, wine – along with hard liquor and beer – was illegal. The only exceptions were sacramental and religious wines, wines made for medicinal purposes, and salted cooking wines. An entire wine-making industry, as well as a generation of wine drinkers, was wiped out. Cooks used what they could get, and for the most part, that meant “cooking” wines.

Today, people still use cooking wine because they’re accustomed to it, or more likely because they don’t drink wine and therefore don’t have it on hand. If you only need a little for a dish, what do you do with the rest of a bottle? Well, there are answers to that which don’t involve using an inferior product – inferior and over-priced, I might add.

Buy a half bottle and use it up. Buy a regular size bottle and decant the remainder into a smaller bottle with a narrow neck, to keep out air. (Exposure to oxygen is what causes wine to sour.) Or buy a box of wine, which has a plastic liner that keeps the air out. The boxes usually say that wine will keep for up to six weeks after opening, but I’ve kept it longer with no problem. Or share with your friends who do imbibe.

A possible substitute for white wine in some cases is Vermouth, a fortified white wine flavored with various spices, herbs, and fruits. My teacher disagreed. In my view, it can be substituted in highly seasoned dishes or meat-based ones. In other cases, like a white wine sauce, you should stick with the wine called for in the recipe.

All fortified wines have had brandy or a neutral spirit added to raise the alcohol content to anywhere between 17% and 21% (wine ranges from 7% to 14% alcohol.) This acts as a preservative, so these wines are shelf-stable. In addition to vermouth are sherry, port, Marsala, and Madeira. Their flavors are distinctive and can be used to make delicious pan sauces or desserts, but they’re not suitable for recipes that call for large quantities of wine like braises or stews.

Back to the question of which wine to use in your dish? If you have a great wine to drink with your meal, there’s no need to use it for your sauce or braise. Use a lesser grade, complementary wine to cook with and savor the better one in your glass. Your palate and your pocketbook will thank you.

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