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The Wine That You Eat

July 28, 2009

This is not a post about wine.  And no, it is not about Wine Gums either.  It is about cooking.  Wine just so happens to be involved.

Even if you are not a big wine drinker, occasionally a recipe you want to make calls for using wine.  Usually the recipe will only specify the color and the sweetness of the wine you should use (e.g. semi-dry white, a dry red, etc.) and then leave you to your own devices.

There are a few basic tenets about cooking with wine at home.  Maybe you know them all, but even still, it is best to read on just to make sure.
First and foremost, never, NEVER EVER use something that is actually called “Cooking Wine” on its label unless a recipe specifically calls for it.  Cooking Wine is a funny little invention that is wine mixed with salt.  Yes, salt.  Grocery stores without liquor licenses can sell the stuff, since not even those who squeeze sterno to get their buzz on will touch this stuff.  At least, that is what I have been led to believe.

Second, and you may have heard this before, do not cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink.  This rule will get you into some trouble if you happen to have expensive tastes in wine.  For me, it’s not such a big deal.  Somewhere around $10 a bottle is my sweet spot for wines that I will use to cook.  Any flaws a wine may have will intensify as the wine cooks down and the flavors get concentrated.

Remember the wine is in the recipe as a flavoring agent.  So the flavor that it adds should be pleasant.  This may sound obvious, but make sure to taste the wine before pouring it into your dish.  Some wine turns in the bottle.  It could be infected with cork taint, it may have oxidized, or it may have been stored on top of someone’s refrigerator for far too long.  Taste it first.

The third rule is only a teeny tiny bit wine geeky.  You are better off with a wine that is made with a blend of grapes rather than a single varietal.  For example, instead of cooking with a wine made from just cabernet sauvignon grapes, look for a wine that adds merlot, cabernet franc or petit verdot.  By using a wine that is composed from more than one grape, the wine will add a fuller, more layered flavor to your final dish.

Finally, if possible try to find a wine that has a similar geographic origin as the dish.  If you are cooking Italian, try to find an Italian wine.  French wines for French dishes.  German wines for German dishes.  You get the picture.

It helps to have a good wine merchant to help you through this.  Because honestly, even if you know your stuff it will be much faster to have another set of eyes to find the bottle you are looking for.

I have made Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese a few times.  The time it came out the best was the time that I found a delicious un-oaked Italian white blend.  You see, the meat gets browned, then simmered in milk, then simmered in wine, before receiving a few tomatoes and simmering some more.

But even will all that simmering, the freshness and fruitiness of the wine still peeked through and helped to balance the dish.  It was a beautiful thing.

Invariably when talking about cooking with wine, people want to know about coq au vin.  Seriously, I am not going to touch that with a twelve-foot pole.  It’s one of those dishes I enjoy eating out, and a specialty at one of my favorite restaurants in Napa, Bistro Jeanty.  But I have witnessed too many people make it at home, and seen some crazy purple chickens.  If you can make it well, God bless you.  But I recommend a trip to Yountville.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2009 7:35 pm

    Ohh, thanks for the tip on blended grapes.

    I learned you should definitely not use a sweet, red, boxed wine for bolognese. Eep. More like sucranese.

  2. August 4, 2009 11:14 am

    Using wine as an ingredient when cooking, really does enhance the flavor of the food. I always enjoy drinking the remainder of the wine with the meal.

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