At Food & Wine, we believe in enjoying food and wine together — in a good pairing, each complements and highlights the other. But wine’s food-enhancing properties don’t end in the glass; wine is a versatile ingredient in the kitchen as well. To better understand how to cook with wine, it helps to know a bit about how cooking transforms it. The same components that shape how wine tastes — its acidity, tannins, alcohol, and (sometimes) sugar — are also instrumental in how wine behaves when it’s cooked. Sweetness and acidity become more concentrated, as do bitter tannins. However, cooking a tannic wine down with meat or stock lessens its astringency because tannins will bind to proteins in the food. (Food scientist Harold McGee likens this idea to taking tea with a splash of milk; the tea’s tannins bind to the milk’s proteins, tempering the tea’s bitterness.) As for the alcohol in wine? It’s a double-edged sword in the kitchen. Alcohol’s pungency can be exacerbated in hot foods; that’s why it’s important to cook a dish after adding wine: to evaporate most of the alcohol. But preserving a bit of the alcohol can provide a third medium, beyond water and fat, into which other ingredients can dissolve, yielding richer flavors, colors, and aromas.
In the recipes that follow, cookbook author Andrea Slonecker, coauthor of Wine Food: New Adventures in Drinking and Cooking, showcases the power of wine through six core cooking techniques. When choosing a wine to cook with, remember that old adage: “Only cook with wine you’d drink.” Although you can cook with a mediocre wine, part of the fun is sipping and savoring as you go. So tonight, measure out what you need for that recipe, and pour yourself a glass of what’s left. Cheers! —Nina Friend
Roasting vegetables or meat with a splash of wine creates a moist heat environment in the oven while imparting flavor to the roast. When choosing a wine for roasting, consider the colors and flavor profiles of what you’re cooking: A bold red wine works well with hearty meats like lamb and dark vegetables like purple carrots; a lighter white wine is more in line with a roast chicken or pale vegetables like parsnips or squash. In this recipe for Red Wine – Roasted Beets with Tahini Yogurt, a fruity red wine like Gamay or Grenache provides a brightness that offsets the beets’ natural earthiness. These lighter reds also mix well with the sumac in the dish, which has a fruity note of its own. In addition, the moisture created through roasting with wine keeps the beets supple, preventing them from getting leathery. After roasting, they’re served over a vibrant yellow sauce of yogurt, tahini, and turmeric and finished with chopped pistachios, lots of herbs, and a dusting of more sumac.
When it comes to steaming, the primary reason to use wine instead of water is flavor, flavor, flavor. Full-bodied white wines, fortified wines, and rice wines work best for steaming because they provide a bold flavor without the color or bitter tannins of a red wine. In this recipe for Shaoxing-Steamed Steelhead Trout and Mushrooms, the flavors of Shaoxing, a Chinese wine made from fermented rice, are imparted into the food through steaming. The steaming also provides moisture, gently cooking the mushrooms and delicate fish to medium doneness. After steaming the fish and mushrooms, some of the hot Shaoxing is added to a mixture of ginger and chile, along with garlic, sugar, and salt, to make a quick sauce. The sauce adds another layer of complexity. Look for Shaoxing wine at Asian grocery stores, or substitute dry sherry.
Marinades soften meat’s muscle tissue, penetrating the interior and delivering an added layer of flavor. While marinades can be made with any acidic liquid, wine is a particularly good one; in addition to adding acidity, wine adds complex flavor to the finished dish. Bringing the wine to a boil helps cook off some of its alcohol and concentrate its fruitiness and acidity. In this Rosé-Marinated Grilled Leg of Lamb with Walnut Salsa Fresca, a rosé-based marinade carries garlic, rosemary, and its own fruity flavors deep into the meat, and anchovies melt into the lamb as it cooks on the grill. Pair the lamb with a Provençal rosé to complement the vibrant, fruit-forward flavors of the dish.
Braising is the process of cooking food quickly to brown it and develop flavor and then cooking it slowly, along with liquid, in a sealed pot. This two-pronged technique is most often used for transforming tougher cuts of meat into tender, rich dishes, but it can also be applied to vegetables, particularly those with fibrous stalks and leaves. While braising can be done with all kinds of liquids, from milk to stock, wine is optimal both for its flavor and acidity. Fruity flavors bring complexity, and wine’s acidity enlivens the more mellow flavors that build up in a braise. Fortified wines like sherry and port, which are wines that have been augmented with a distilled spirit, often brandy, work particularly well in braises; their rich, fruity, and nutty flavor profiles add another kind of depth. In the Madeira-Braised Swiss Chard with Garam Masala, Sultanas, and Toasted Almonds, a savory-sweet Madeira-based sauce builds a complex flavor. The sauce is seasoned with spices that complement the earthy Swiss chard, leading to an agrodolce-like effect. Golden raisins reiterate the flavor of the Madeira, and toasted almonds bring out its inherent nuttiness.
Pan sauces are the product of deglazing, the process of adding wine to a pan in order to dissolve the food that’s stuck there, leading to a flavor-packed sauce or gravy. The basic formula for pan sauce can be boiled down to six steps: sauté, pan-fry, or sear meat, and remove the meat from the pan; pour off excess fat if needed, and sauté alliums and spices in the pan; deglaze the pan with wine, and reduce the wine down; add liquid (such as lemon or orange juice or broth); mount the mixture with fat (such as crème fraîche, butter, or cream); and finish the sauce with aromatics like herbs. Switching up a pan sauce with different wines leads to infinite possibilities — from a White Wine Pan Sauce with Crème Fraîche and Spring Herbs for chicken or fish to a Red Wine Pan Sauce with Cumin and Chiles for beef or lamb, and even a Sherry Pan Sauce that’s a perfect match for pork or duck.
Wine helps to create a moist, fluffy crumb in baked goods while bringing subtle acid and fruit notes. In this Aperol Spritz Cake with Prosecco-Poached Rhubarb, for instance, Prosecco in the batter delivers aeration (from the bubbles), which helps to create a lighter cake, while the wine’s acidity yields a slight tartness that’s similar to the flavor achieved by buttermilk . The Prosecco is also used in conjunction with Aperol as a liquid poaching for rhubarb and oranges, gently stewing the fruit to a meltingly soft texture. After the cake is baked, it gets doused in the rhubarb-orange poaching liquid; as the liquid soaks into the cake, it further enhances the tart, fruity flavors of the final dessert.
What to keep in mind when cooking with different types of wine. —Nina Friend
Fruity and gluggable: That’s our rule of thumb when choosing a red wine to have on hand for cooking. While stews and braises can call for a heavy red like a Bordeaux, lighter, simpler options that are dry, low in tannins, and overtly oak-influenced — like a Gamay or Grenache — tend to be the most adaptable to a wide range of dishes .
Generally, when it comes to cooking, light, dry rosé wines are interchangeable with crisp, light- to medium-bodied white wines. Rosé can add softly tart and citrusy notes to a dish, whereas a white like Sauvignon Blanc or uno Chardonnay might offer a more herbaceous flair.
Wines that have been bolstered with a distilled spirit like brandy are good for building sauces and finishing soups. Semisweet Madeira, which has a nutty flavor profile with notes of stewed fruit, is a workhorse in the kitchen, but a dry Marsala can act as a substitute.
When choosing a bottle of bubbly to bake with, the drier the better because you want to have as much control as possible over the amount of sugar in the finished product. (Look for the word “brut,” which means dry.) Prosecco is versatile and works well, but you can swap in any affordable sparkling wine, like Cava or Crémant.