Wine Talk: Cook au vin

Using wine in your dishes will upgrade your cuisine, but you don’t have to buy a special bottle.

Coq au Vin (photo credit: Courtesy)
Coq au Vin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Drinking wine is one thing, but if you like wine to drink, you will most likely have open bottles at home.
Then why not also consider using it more in the kitchen? Restaurant chefs use wine as a matter of course, and there is no reason it could not be used more frequently in home cooking, too. You just need to think of wine as another cooking ingredient, similar to salt, pepper or olive oil.
Wine has so much to offer the domestic cook. It acts as a catalyst for bringing out flavor in the same way that salt does. Wine tenderizes meat, adds both color and moisture and enhances the flavor. Cooking with wine is celebrated in dishes like Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon, where it has even become part of the name. However, its uses are varied. Wine may be used for flambéing, glazing, deglazing, macerating, marinating or poaching.
Let’s be honest. We don’t normally choose a wine to cook with. Our selection is more often determined by what is available.
However, there is one consideration above all others. You would never consider cooking with poor ingredients, so I strongly recommend that you avoid cooking with a bad wine or with acidic or bitter leftovers.
The rule is never to cook with any wine that you would not be prepared to drink. It is better to pour it down the sink or water the plants with it than risk ruining the taste of a carefully prepared stew or casserole. The simple reason is that cooking concentrates a wine’s flavor, so a wine that is sour, vinegary, moldy or corky will only appear far worse when cooked.
I am not one of those who believe that you must use an expensive wine in cooking or that you have to use the same wine you are drinking. If it is just a splash, then okay.
However, if you choose to use a special or an expensive wine to cook with to impress, then, in my opinion, you’d have to be crazy.
The reason is that once a wine is cooked, it loses its alcohol and changes its taste.
Remember, there is no wine expert alive who would be able to identify the quality or price of a wine after it has been cooked.
The wines will not even be recognizable, unless perhaps they are sweet wines like port or Madeira or very aromatic ones like Gewurztraminer. So it is worth avoiding the situation of someone I once knew in England.
His wife phoned him during the day to say she hoped it was okay that she had used a wine in the cooking. Her husband got home to find that she had mistakenly opened the Mouton Rothschild instead of the Mouton Cadet. I don’t know if they are still married….
Of course, with a regular wine, there is no problem with using it for both cooking and drinking it later. However, I think this necessity is overrated. What I do recommend, though, is that the wines you cook with are ideally similar to the ones you drink. So if I am choosing to drink a single vineyard Merlot with the meal, I may choose to cook with a more inexpensive Merlot.
How to select a cooking wine depends on the dish, what you hope to achieve, and what you have spare and available. If I have to generalize, I suggest that a big, fruity, spicy red wine makes the best cooking partner. It is recommended to choose wines that are neither too oaky nor too tannic.
Of course, wine is an important coloring agent, so you also need a wine with a deep, bold red color as opposed to a light, insipid young red. The best white wines for cooking are those that are more neutral in taste and don’t have unduly high acidity. Good acidity may provide balance to a dish, but it also may be magnified during the cooking process.
Wine is perfect for a reduction or quick-cooked sauce prepared just before serving.
For the most pronounced wine flavor, reduce the wine separately, and then whisk it in your sauce. For a more integrated result, use the wine to degrease a sauté or roasting pan, heat it gently but be careful not to overboil it so it does not taste flat. Including the bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, this will make a wonderful impromptu sauce.
Wine is classic for marinades and is a wonderful tenderizer of meat. The great chef Raymond Blanc, from Le Manoir à Quatre Saisons in England, recommends gently boiling off the alcohol and then letting the wine cool to about 40° before adding it to the meat. He believes the exchange of flavors is better at this temperature. If too hot, it will cook the food. But if too cold, the wine’s flavors will not be transferred to the meat successfully.
Wine can be the perfect poaching liquid for fish or chicken. Cooking fish in a microwave with a little white or sparkling wine, olive oil and a few Mediterranean herbs can be the easiest way to enjoy fresh fish without it drying out. You can then use the liquid as the accompanying sauce. Wine may also be used for poaching fruit. Pears poached in red wine is a well-known recipe.
Don’t forget there are many more unusual types of wine that may be used to give that something extra. Vermouth, marsala and sherry are flavorful cooking additions. For instance, a splash of sherry in a soup can enhance the whole perception and taste of the dish.
If your objective is to achieve a noticeable wine flavor, add the wine later on in the cooking process. For more integrated flavors, just cook everything together. If you want to use wine for flaming food, it is recommended to warm the wine before igniting it.
If you are concerned about cooking with wine for children or those who don’t drink alcohol, don’t worry. The alcohol will disappear during the cooking process.
Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water.
Two useful tips: Don’t leave your leftover wine out on the sideboard in a half-empty bottle. I suggest you pour the remains into an empty plastic water bottle. Squeeze the bottle as you fill it to ensure there is no air left inside. Then keep it in the refrigerator, and you’ll have some cooking wine ready when you need it. This may keep up to a week. If you know in advance that you will not be drinking too much, put the cork back in the bottle at the table immediately after pouring. (If the cork does not go in, try it the other way up.) This will also contribute to the wine’s longevity. Remember that air and wine are enemies.
Alternatively, pour the remaining wine into a saucepan and boil off the alcohol.
Then pour the liquid into an ice-cube tray and put it in the freezer. The wine will freeze because it no longer has alcohol, and you have ready-made cubes of flavor to add individually whenever you want.
Finally, the most important wine in the kitchen is the glass of cold, refreshing white wine being sipped by the person who is cooking the meal. Bring wine into the kitchen and everything will taste better!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery & regularly writes on wine for Israeli and international publications. [email protected]