I am sure most of you have heard the phrase - 'never cook with a wine which you would not drink yourself'. A poor quality wine with sour or bitter flavours will only add those same flavours to the dish. A poor quality wine can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a splendid one. It is worth the investment in thinking carefully and to a degree in the price - to buy a quality, well made wine.
So why cook with wine? Wine helps cook and add flavour to a dish, as you can add flavour and moisture to a dish without adding fat, when cooking with wine. For example when cooking fish or chicken - you can add wine to the frying-pan while the dish is simmering, or drizzle the ingredients with a tablespoon or two of wine and bake it in a tin-foil package.
Wine is a great ingredient in marinades, as wine is basically an acid ingredient (which helps tenderize the outside of the meat) and it has a lot of flavour. Plus the wine-based marinade helps keep meat, poultry and also seafood moist while it cooks. Wine can be used in baking, as certain types of cakes, using wine or typically sherry in place of some of the fat or oil, not only lightens up the cake but adds complimentary flavours.
The longer or more slowly you cook with wine, the more alcohol in the wine will evaporate. For example if a dish is cooked, baked or simmered for 15-20 minutes, approximately 40% of the alcohol will remain in the liquid-sauce. After one hour, approximately 25% remains; and after 2 ½ hours, just 5% will remain. Though it should be noted that since wine does not have a large amount of alcohol to start with (generally 12% - 15% Alc/vol), the final amount of alcohol remaining in a dish is generally not a problem for most people to consume.
A very dry wine has very few natural sugars remaining after fermentation, and can be higher in alcohol. In contrast, the sweeter wines still contain a larger amount of natural unfermented sugars from the grapes. So look to choose a style of wine depending on the primary flavours you want in the dish you are making.
Then you need to take into account the level of tannins and acid in the wine. A wines natural acidity or sharp bite should be thought of much like you would experience with lemon juice or vinegar. Acid can help bring out the natural flavours in a mild food, such as fish (have you ever thought why fish is often served with an acidic wedge of lemon).
Tannins generally found in red wines; this refers to the bitter element (similar to the bitterness you can find in a strong cup of green tea). The tannins in red wines pair well with strong flavoured, rich dishes, like a prime cut of steak. The tannins along with any remaining alcohol cut through the fats in the meat and release the flavours in the dish and cleanse the palate ready for the next mouth-full. So a general guideline when looking to choose a wine to cook with, is that a light-flavoured wine goes well with delicately flavoured foods - and a fuller style wine will go well in a bold flavoured dish.
For the more serious chef you might also like to consider the preparation of the dish. It is important to consider not only the primary ingredient, but also think about the way the dish is prepared when choosing a wine to use in cooking or to serve at the table. For example, a dish heavy on the spices usually needs a full-bodied wine to stand up and not be over powered by the flavours. Then a dish with a light or creamy sauce calls for a drier, lighter style wine or a fuller-oaked wine.
When cooking with wine consider the components in each wine. This is especially crucial when cooking with white wine. For delicate fish or vegetables, a dry non-oaked wine is ideal. If your recipe is packed with onions, carrots and tomatoes, there will be plenty of sugars in the dish, so cooking with a light-medium dry red or a full-bodied white wine can integrate well.
Then it can be a good suggestion to serve the same wine with dinner in which you used to make the dish. So when thinking ahead try and buy an extra bottle so you can cook and enjoy it. When you are cooking with red wine, watch out for tannins, as when concentrated in a reduction sauce, they can become harsh. Fortunately, proteins found in meat and dairy soften tannins like milk does in tea.
Wine has three traditional uses in the cooking - as a marinade ingredient, as a cooking liquid, and as a flavouring in a finished dish. The role of wine in cooking is to intensify, enhance, and accent the flavour and aroma of the main ingredient in the dish - not to mask the flavour of what you are cooking but rather to intensify its expression. As with any seasoning used in cooking, care should be given to the amount of wine used - too little is insignificant and too much will overpower the dish. So when reading a recipe which calls for dry white wine, the best all-around choice is a light unoaked Chardonnay or a ‘dry style’ Sauvignon Blanc. These two styles of wine will be dry and offer a fresh light pip-fruit flavours, and the Sauvignon subtle herbal notes that will complement and enhance nearly any dish.
If the dish that you are cooking has bold or spicy flavours, go for a more aromatic and expressive white wine. Like a Gewürztraminer, sweet Riesling, and even a ripe Viognier all have dynamic fruity flavours and exotic floral aromas that balance the heavily spiced dish.
If a recipe calls for a dry red wine, please consider the intensity of the dish. For example - a long-simmered leg of lamb or beef roast calls for a correspondingly vibrant wine, such as a Grenache or a Syrah and for the really hearty dish a Cabernet. A lighter meat dish might call for a less full-bodied red wine - like a classic Pinot Noir or a Primitivo.
Sweet dessert wines are ideal for poaching pears, making sweet sauces for fruit tarts. These naturally sweet wines with good acidity can be used both for desserts and delicately flavoured savoury dishes. These include: Sauternes - Late Harvest Wines - Sweet Rieslings - Moscato - Ice Wine and Gewürztraminer.
Each different oxidized style wine has a uniquely different taste that will influence and even change the flavour profile of the dish. Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala are among the best wines to have on hand when cooking. They contain the most intense flavours and - because they are fortified in style with a little more alcohol than normal table wines. Port has a rich sweetness and depth of character that goes well in meat-based casseroles.
Sherry's complex roasted nut flavours can enhance soups, stews or sautéed dishes. Two styles of Sherry that work best are Amontillado or Oloroso. Madeira can be invitingly luscious with toffee-caramel notes. Use the medium-rich style known as Bual, a touch of which will transform ordinary sautéed mushrooms. Marsala has a light caramel, fruitiness and is an integral part of Mediterranean dishes, many recipes even have the wine's name in the title.
Please be weary of any bottle which is a so-called ‘cooking Sherry’ or other liquids commonly labelled as ‘cooking wine’. These are typically made from a thin, poor quality base wine to which salt and food colouring have been added.
Remember that wine does not belong in every dish. Also note more than one wine-based sauce in a single meal can nullify the resulting flavours you are looking for. Use wine is cooking only when it has something to contribute to the finished dish. One last thing to remember - after you have created something spectacular when cooking with wine; don't forget to write down how you did it - so you can repeat the experience.