When the late celebrity chef, TV personality, cooking instructor and cookbook author Julia Child was asked to comment on cooking with wine, she responded: "If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor wine can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one."
As profound as these words of wisdom are, however, they pertain primarily to the quality of wine used in cooking. The other phases of integrating wine when preparing food are equally significant in achieving the desired results, according to authorities on the subject.
The first and perhaps most important rule is to use only wine that you personally prefer. If you don't like the taste of a certain wine, you probably won't like the flavor of the dish in which you include it. In other words, if you don't drink it, don't use it.
If you don't drink it, don't use it.
Another suggestion is to avoid so-called "cooking wine." It is typically salty and contains additives that could have an adverse effect on the flavor of the food. The process of cooking/reducing brings out the worst in what is more of a hybrid than a natural wine.
Pricey Wine for Cooking is Not Necessary
It isn't necessary to use a pricey wine in cooking, though a cheap wine doesn't always support the characteristics of a dish. Try to find a reasonably priced brand that provides the same flavor as a premium wine to drink with the meal. For example, save that $75 bottle of Land of Promise Pinot Noir Sanoma Coast 2014 to sip, not stir.
In the kitchen, a wine has three main functions; as a marinade ingredient, cooking liquid and for flavoring. Its purpose in cooking is to arouse the flavor and enrich the meal. Don't use it to mask flavors, but rather to intensify them.
As with flavoring or seasoning, care should be taken in the amount of wine applied. Too little has no effect, too much can be overpowering. Avoid either extreme, since a small, measured splash is all you need.
If alcohol is an issue for the user, keep in mind that the alcohol in wine completely evaporates while the dish is cooking, leaving only the flavor.
So much for the scientific or artistic aspects of cooking with wine. Now let's look into what, when and how much wine to use to upgrade your cooking.
How Much Wine to Use in Cooking
Because wine contains alcohol, it should be added at the start of cooking so it has a chance to burn off. Splashing it at the end usually induces a raw, unpleasant taste. All wines are not compatible with food. A highly tannic red, for instance, can turn chalky in a saucepan reduction. Whether you use a red, white, rose or sparkler, a young version with bright, fruity notes is preferred.
Use dry wines, known in wine parlance as "crisp." Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are recommended because of their bright citrus and green apple notes. Full-bodied whites like Chardonnay don't work as well since they are lower in acidity and lack the snap of more crispy wines. When reduced, the oak and buttery flavors turn bitter.
Dry Red Wines Stimulate Flavors in Foods
White wine is a pantry staple of many cooks who use it to deglaze the brown bits in a pan sauce for sauteed fish, chicken and pork. Add it to shellfish just before you put the lid on for steaming, and pour a dash in a bouillon for steeping salmon, bass or flounder.
Dry reds like Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are capable of stimulating flavors. A young red's fruity tone contributes depth and zip to a dish. Be aware of full-bodied reds like Cabernet, Syrah and Barolo since they are big on tannins. Add red wine to slow-cooked stews and tomato sauce and pan sauces for seared lamb, duck, chicken or beef, and to some desserts.
When to Add the Wine During Cooking:
For Stews, Braises and Tomato Sauces
For stews, braises and tomato sauces, include wine early in the simmering stage, after the meat and vegetables are browned. Let the wine reduce before adding other liquids. Add a pinch near the end of cooking to deepen tomato ragu.
For Pan Sauces
For pan sauces, add the wine after the meat is set aside to rest. Reduce the wine to a syrupy consistency, then add other liquids such as cream or stock, and reduce again. Whisking in a tablespoon or two of butter is an option.
For marinades, add the wine with the other ingredients, but make sure the sauce is brought to a boil and cooked thoroughly.
For Seafood Dishes
For saute of shrimp or scallops, add the wine after the initial searing but before the seafood is done, so there's time for the wine to release.
Use Sweet Wine Sparingly
Use sweet wine sparingly, since the sugar might be incompatible with the food's flavor. A splash of Sauternes, Riesling or other sweet wine can perk up custard, sorbets and fruit salads. Always add it at the conclusion of cooking to preserve the dish's subtleties. (Learn more in "Perfect Pairings for German Riesling.")
Raw wine works best in cold preparations in which the chill softens the alcohol's edge. Strawberries sprinkled with red wine register because they are served chilled as the sugar and juice diminish the wine.
How Much Wine to Add During Cooking
Specifically, here are the suggested amounts of wine to add to each item:
How Much Wine to Add to Soups
2 tablespoons per cup of food.
How Much Wine to Add to Sauces
Sauces -- same as soups. Gravies -- same as sauces.
How Much Wine to Add to Stews and Meats
Stews and meats -- one-fourth per pound.
How Much Wine to Add to Fish Dishes
Fish poaching -- one-half cup per quart.
Finally, remember that wine does not belong in every dish. More than one wine-based sauce in the same meal can be boring. Include wine in cooking only if it has something special to contribute to the finished dish.