electronic Gourmet Guide


Choose a Wine for Cooking


Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Sherry?

So you've made the decision to add wine to your cooking repertoire. But which one to use? The first and most important rule of thumb is: cook only with a wine you would drink. I don't mean go out and buy a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild to make Beef Stroganoff. But if the wine is OK to drink, it's OK to cook with. There is even a cookbook out by a renowned chef which has a picture of the kitchen in which can be seen the infamous "box of wine." Hey, if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us. (Actually, an added plus of the box is that it is air-tight, so it can stay on the shelf or in the fridge without "turning"). The wine to avoid is so-called cooking wine located in the supermarket near the vinegar. I'd rather use the vinegar. "Cooking wine" is, first, a poor quality wine packaged so it can be priced higher than it should, and second, a wine to which salt is added, either to prevent you from drinking it straight or to "help" in seasoning. Avoid it even if it means not using wine at all.

So, to start I would suggest using a very mainstream white and/or red to cook with. As you get more accustomed to using wine as an ingredient in your creations, you can start to play around with which wine you want to use. You could buy an extra bottle of the wine you are planning to serve with dinner, and use it in the dish. Or you could get more creative. How about using a Sauvignon Blanc, known for its herbaceous quality as a wine, in a dish highlighting herbs. Zinfandels have a berry or cherry character, which would be a nice background to a fruit sauce for duck. A buttery Chardonnay is the perfect base for a beurre blanc. The more you learn about the characteristics of your favorite wines, the more creative you can be with how you cook with them.

There is one more class of wines that don't fall into the red or white category. These are fortified wines such as Sherry, Port and Vermouth. The reason they are called fortified wines is that an additional neutral grain spirit (i.e. extra alcohol) has been added to the initial wine before a very long aging. This extra alcohol helps in the preservation of the wine and helps develop some of the complexities through the increased aging. Each of these wines has individual catagories that range from delicate and dry to sweet. Be careful when choosing one for cooking. You wouldn't want to use a sweet sherry in a dish where you wanted a dry one. These wines, because of their increased aging, develop intense flavors. Some sherries have a nut-like quality from the aging. Ports can be sweet, and good for fruit dishes or desserts. Vermouth differs in that assorted herbs and spices have been steeped in the wine, giving it a very unique flavor. A dry Vermouth would be good in place of a white wine. A sweet Vermouth would be a great addition to a fruit dessert that has a hint of herbs in it (see recipes for an idea).

Cooking with Wine
Recipes for Cooking with Wine

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About the author:

Joe LaVilla originally hails from Rochester, in Western New York State. While obtaining his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Rochester, he decided to pursue his culinary calling. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Joe has worked in Manhattan, Washington, D.C. and at Spago in Las Vegas before settling in Phoenix.

For monthly "best" wine picks by a San Francisco tasting panel, don't miss Fred McMillin's On Wine.  

This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

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Modified August 2007