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updated: 8/27/2012 3:15 PM

Mary Ross' tips for cooking with wine

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When it comes to cooking with wine, many recipes need translation.

A standard glitch is the recommendation of "Burgundy" for cooking. Is the chef using French Burgundy, whose vineyards have been heralded by emperors and poets, with bottles priced at $20 and up (way up)? If so, I'll have what she's having.

If the recommendation is California Burgundy, you'll be hard-pressed to find it bottled in quantities less than 1.5 liters; that's a lot of mediocre wine, no matter how cheap.

Still, a splash of wine is the easiest way to add flavor, flare and even health benefits to your homiest family meals.

Wine's alcohol brings out flavor in other ingredients, then carries those flavors through the dish more effectively than water, fat or oil.

With marinating, wine's acid and tannin tenderize rough cuts and reduce carcinogens caused by frying and grilling.

And, because cooks in other cultures have been wise to wine's benefits for generations, a simple dish -- chicken stew, for instance -- transforms into a culinary classic, coq au vin, with wine in the recipe. But which wine?

First, use the same or similar wine to cook as you are serving at table. A splash of simple, well-made Chianti in the pan echoes the finest Chianti Riserva in your crystal stemware. Freeze left over wine as ice cubes for future recipes.

Avoid products labeled "cooking wine," as they generally include additives and salt.

When the recipe recommends simply a white or a red wine choose a style with similar flavors as your dish. Seafood, poultry and lighter meat recipes employing butter call for Chardonnay, a grape known for "buttery" characteristics; ask your merchant for a low- or no-oak selection.

With olive oil or herbed recipes, use Sauvignon Blanc, with its herbal flavor.

For citrusy dishes, choose Italian Pinot Grigio with its lemony acidity.

For meaty or rich poultry dishes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah echo herbs found in many Mediterranean recipes.

Pinot Noir enhances dishes with fruit, such as duck with cherries or turkey with cranberries.

Chianti (or the Chianti region's grape, Sangiovese) combines both herbal and berry flavors. Overt tannin in some reds may add bitterness when reduced in cooking, so ask your merchant for a low-tannin selection.

Recipes listing "Champagne" (beginning at $30 per bottle) really mean "sparkling wine," such as Spanish Cava or Italian Prosecco (beginning a less than $10.) Unless the dish is dessert, choose the brut (dry) style.

Consider your preference for dry or sweet flavors when cooking with Madeira or Port (from Portugal), Marsala (Italy) and Sherry (Spain). Each of these fine fortified wines is made in styles ranging from bone dry to caramel sweet. If you prefer a sweeter chicken Marsala, for instance, ask your merchant for sweet Marsala; if you prefer dry flavors, ask for dry.

In all cases, avoid fortified wine made outside its native land. A few dollars extra for the real McCoy is repaid in far more complex flavors. Half bottles are widely-available and open bottles last for months; simply re-cork and stand in the refrigerator (or the fortified alcohol will eat through the cork).

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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