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FOOD FOR THOUGHT - March 8, 2006
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel

Cooking with Wine I

There’s a plaque in my kitchen that reads:  “I love to cook with wine.  Sometimes I even put it in the food.”  It’s the latter half of this whimsical quip that is the crux of the current discussion.  In the first half of this two-part article we will focus on selecting wine for culinary applications.  In the second half we will discuss the procedures for cooking with wine. 

     Let’s start with a few basics.  NEVER, under any circumstances, not even at gunpoint, use cooking wine.  Cooking wine is extremely low quality wine that has been imbibed with excessive salt and other unnecessary flavoring agents.  As will be discussed in greater detail in part II of this article, cooking with wine concentrates its flavors.  Thus, the grody, salty cooking wine will end up even nastier and saltier tasting.

     Always use table wine, i.e., wine that would be served to drink with the meal.  Now the question becomes how good does that wine need to be?  The baseline standard is illuminated by the old adage, “if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.”  Endeavor to employ an inexpensive, but nevertheless pleasant tasting wine.  Don’t buy the cheapest wine on the shelf.  That’s a sure fire way to procure any of a number of wretched potables that are giving the rest of the wine world a bad name.  Remember, if it’s grim tasting from the bottle, it will be even worse in your cooked dish.  There are plenty of economical wines that are serviceable but you must experiment.  Seek the counsel of your wine retailer and taste various wines to develop a repertoire of cost effective wines suitable for cooking.

     OK, so we know the rotgut du jour is out.  What’s next?  Well, there’s red, white, dry, sweet, light, medium, and heavy bodied wine.  The easiest starting point is the oversimplified axiom:  red wine with meat and white wine with fowl/fish.  This standard excels at the extremes.   For example, if you were making a sauce from the drippings of a hearty beef roast, this is a no-brainer red wine scenario.  Conversely, if you were preparing a pan sauce for a light, white fish, say sole or flounder, that you sautéed in butter and lemon, white wine is the only way to go. 

     The rule starts to break down with the multifarious dishes in-between these poles.  Take for example salmon, (a heartier fish than sole), with a tomato based sauce.  Here you could employ a light red wine.  The classic French dish coq au vin is chicken braised in red wine.  Some cooks use white wine when making a meat sauce such as Bolognese.  White wine also mingles well with various pork dishes.  There are countless other examples.  The point is this:  For dishes between the extremes, strive to match the color of the wine and its body, (light, medium, or full), to the robustness of the dish.  Generally speaking, heavier fish and fowl with stouter sauces or lighter red meats, (such as pork or veal), with suppler sauces, can often pair with a heavier white or a light red.

     The next piece of information you need to know is which wines are lighter or heavier bodied.  Light bodied whites include Pinot Grigio, Soave, and Sauvignon Blanc.  Heavier whites include Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.  Light reds include Beaujolais, Dolcetto, and Cotes du Rhone.  Heavier reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo, Bordeaux, and Syrah.  This is not an exhaustive list but a general guide.  But to make matters more complex, sometimes a traditionally heavier wine is made in a lighter style.  For example, the cheapest Cabernet in your local wine shop will not carry the weight of a higher quality Cabernet.  Numerous vintners make inexpensive, mass-market wines.  In order to grind out a profit from their run-of-the-mill, $8 a bottle Cabernet, they need to maximize the vineyard yield.  This produces a less concentrated wine.  As always, a combination of erudition, consulting your wine retailer, and tasting experience will enlighten you to the who’s who in wines. 

     The next choice is dry or sweet.  This isn’t too complex.  Almost always, dry wines are employed for savory dishes and sweeter wines for sweet dishes. 

     If you’re a more serious cook and wine enthusiast, you’ll wish to venture beyond the boundaries of red vs. white, light vs. heavy, and dry vs. sweet.  At the most sophisticated level, wines will also be chosen based on how their specific nuances commingle with the particular food in question.  For example, Sauvignon Blanc is often known to have herbaceous undertones.  Thus, it would be a good choice for a dish where the herbs are prominent, (assuming a white wine was appropriate to begin with).  Some Chardonnays have buttery elements and pair well with butter based sauces.  Zinfandel, known for its berry flavors would work with a fruity sauce.  For poached pears, I prefer Beaujolais, a light and fruity wine. 

     A final optional guideline is to use the same kind of wine in the dish that you are serving with the meal.  Obviously you would employ a more economical version for the cooking.

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