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What Kind of Wine Should I Cook With?

Beef braised in red wine. Mussels in a white wine sauce. Pork belly stewed in fortified rice wine. Wine is one of those rare things that is both worth enjoying on its own and worth using as an ingredient. From fish dishes to desserts, wine plays a crucial role in recipes all over the world. But what are the 'rules' of cooking with wine? Should you only use cheap wines? Or should you only use wines fit to drink? What wines should you cook with? Today's blog seeks to answer those questions (and a few more) as straightforwardly as possible!

What Does Cooking with Wine Do?

Wine, like any ingredient, imparts flavor. The tannins of red wine or a white wine's fresh acidity offer depth and complexity to marinades and sauces of all kinds. However, the chemical compounds in wine also offer textures you might not otherwise get either. For instance, red wine helps break down tougher cuts of meat over long periods in braises and stews. White wine helps fish and chicken retain moisture and delicate texture.

The astringency or tartness of a wine can also balance out sweetness (like in a dessert) or richness (like a fatty cut of meat). This can make a dish more sophisticated and take your cooking to new levels. It's also why, in general, you want to avoid cooking with sweet wines: the sugars in the wine might impart excessive sweetness.

What's the Difference Between Cooking Wine & Regular Wine?

So should you buy a regular wine or a 'cooking' wine? In truth, the difference depends on the context. Most of the time, "cooking" wine is just standard table wine. However, a wine that you find on the supermarket shelf next to vinegar or olive oil is actually wine combined with salt, sugar, spices, and ingredients designed to make it more shelf-stable. We don't recommend drinking this, but it deserves a place in any home chef's kitchen. Chinese cooking, for instance, heavily features Shaoxing wine, which is seasoned rice wine.

Should I Cook with a Nice Wine?

Depending on who you ask, some chefs will tell you never to cook with wine you wouldn't drink. Other chefs might tell you that the quality of the wine you cook with doesn't matter, as most of the complexity and maturity you pay for in an expensive wine will cook away. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

Will it affect the quality of your dish if you use a middle-of-the-road wine vs. a premium vintage? Most chefs would say no. However, you also want to make sure you're using a wine with flavor that you actually enjoy. And if a recipe calls for just a splash of wine, we highly recommend pouring yourself a glass while you cook.

The key is balance. There are plenty of decent wines out there at decent prices, wines that are fine for drinking and cooking. It's worth trying them out next time you make dinner.

Best White Wines for Cooking

As a rule of thumb, choose dry white wines over sweet wines. Sweet wines may actually caramelize or ruin the flavor. Aside from that, the varietal you choose is up to your palate. Feel free to experiment as much as you like between white wines, as virtually all of them would work excellently with fish, cheese, and cream sauces.

  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chardonnay
  • White Bordeaux
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sancerre
  • Dry Vermouth

Best Red Wines for Cooking

Bold, rich, and savory dishes get a major boost from tannin and herbaceous red wine flavors. As a rule, aim for wines with moderate tannins. Some full-bodied reds might get chalky as they reduce down, like Syrah. But a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon does well in a braise. As always, feel free to experiment.

  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Côtes du Rhône Cabernet
  • Chianti
  • Pinot Noir

Can I Substitute a Red Wine for a White Wine in the Recipe?

If a recipe calls for white wine, feel free to substitute in any white wine you like. The same goes for reds. However, do not substitute a red for a white or a white for a red. Red wines have more tannins and savory flavors that wouldn't substitute well for a white wine's acidity and fresh fruit.

Additionally, the cook time for a red wine needs to account for the fact that red wines go bitter if you cook them for too long. White wines, however, can be reduced to almost nothing without becoming bitter. Substitute white wine for a red might result in far more savory, bitter flavors than you wanted.

The exception to red wines becoming bitter over long cook times is braising rich cuts of meat. The fat and collagen in these cuts are enough to counteract the bitterness of cooking red wine for long periods.

Make Sure to Enjoy the Process

Cooking with wine is an art, but it doesn't take long to amplify and deepen your skills with wine. Next time you're making a cheese sauce, see what a splash of white wine can add to a béchamel. If you're making a warm winter stew, try adding a glass of red wine to reduce before adding the beef stock. Whatever you do, pour yourself a glass while you do it—there's no reason not to enjoy yourself!

Part of any wine journey is finding premium wines to add to your collection (and your palate). See what world-class vintages we have to offer on our Shoppage.