Getting to Know: Cooking Wines and Spirits
Wines and other spirits can add acidity, sweetness, or complex flavor to an array of dishes—both sweet and savory. Here are the ones that we like to keep handy.
Along with acidity, red wine contributes flavor and complexity to foods. We usually find that cooking or reducing the wine allows some of the alcohol to evaporate and mellows the flavor. Mild-flavored wines work best for cooking; we use balanced table wines like French Côtes du Rhône for braises and pan sauces like our Basic Red Wine Pan Sauce.
White wine’s acidity and complex flavors can be a boon to pan sauces and casseroles. Avoid oaky, buttery Chardonnays—they can overwhelm subtle flavors—in favor of crisp, clean, dry Sauvignon Blancs. Don’t spend an arm and a leg; a $10 wine is fine for cooking. Just be sure to avoid “cooking wines” in supermarkets—what these low-alcohol impostors lack in flavor, they overcompensate for with sodium and unpalatable acidity.
Sometimes we turn to beer to add hoppy or malty flavor to dishes like our Brisket Carbonnade or Guinness Beef Stew. But other times it’s also the carbonation in beer that makes it essential to recipes like beer-battered onion rings and our tempura-style fish tacos. As the batter cooks, the escaping bubbles add lift and help inhibit gluten development, keeping the batter more tender and less bready.
This Sicilian import is a fortified wine—a wine that has been supplemented with brandy or another distilled spirit. This process not only extends the shelf life of the wine but also allows winemakers to manipulate the flavors. Marsala has a smoky flavor and a range of sweetness levels: dolce (sweet), semisecco (semi-sweet), and secco (dry). We use sweet Marsala in our Chicken Marsala recipe.
While it was originally produced in France, this fortified white wine (also known as French Vermouth) is now made in countries across Europe and in the United States. A classic ingredient in martinis, dry vermouth works equally well as a cooking wine. Flavored with herbs, spices, and other botanicals, it adds a subtle range of flavors. Plus, its longer shelf life (three to nine months if refrigerated) makes it a more convenient option than white wine, which starts to decline in a few hours.
Sherry is a Spanish fortified white wine that has oxidized, giving it a caramel, nutty flavor. It is produced in different styles: Fino is the least oxidized and has the lightest, driest flavor. Amontillado is slightly heavier and sweeter. Oloroso, also known as cream sherry, is the most expensive and highest in alcohol (at 24 percent); it is highly concentrated, sweet, and dark brown. We use dry sherries in savory recipes and save the sweet stuff for desserts like our Tipsy Squire.
Mirin is a low-alcohol Japanese wine made from a blend of rices and alcohol and then fermented. While it is served as an aperitif in Japan, in the United States, it is most often used in Asian-inspired marinades and sauces to add sweet, acidic tang. Available in most grocery stores, it is sometimes labeled “sweetened sake” or “Aji-Mirin,” though it is made from a different variety of rice than sake. Our Best Buy supermarket mirin is Eden Mirin Rice Cooking Wine.
Port is wine (usually red) from Portugal’s Douro Valley that has been fortified with brandy. It is slightly sweet, as producers stop fermentation early while much of the grape sugar is still left in the wine. It is then aged anywhere from two to 50 years. We use ruby port (which is fruity and aged only about two years) in most recipes because it is less expensive and more visually appealing than older tawny port.
True bourbon is made in the United States from a fermented grain mash of corn (at least 51 percent), wheat, rye, and malted barley. It is aged in charred oak barrels that contribute bourbon’s characteristic flavors of vanilla, caramel, and toasted nuts. We use the spirit in sauces, marinades, and desserts like our New Orleans Bourbon Bread Pudding.
Brandies like cognac and Armagnac are distilled from wine made from neutral grapes (usually Ugni Blanc) and then aged—sometimes upwards of 60 years— to develop their flavors. Some brandies are made from other fruits; Calvados is a famous brandy of northern France made from apples. Their high alcohol percentage (about 40 percent) gives brandies a long shelf life.
Rum is usually distilled from fermented sugarcane juice or molasses; different distillation and aging methods produce light rum and dark rum. Both types are used in baking; we use light rum in our Holiday Rum Cake and dark rum in our Pumpkin Cake with Rum-Raisin Frosting.
Vodka performs a vital role in our recipe for foolproof pie dough. We replace some of the water (which helps develop the gluten that makes pie dough tough) with vodka, which is 40 percent alcohol (and doesn’t promote gluten development). This way, we’re able to add enough liquid to make a rollable pie dough without developing the gluten that makes it tough.