It doesn’t have to be expensive, but faulty wine used in cooking can ruin any dish.
Butlers in English mansions used to put salt in the cooking wine so the kitchen staff wouldn’t drink it. Assuming you’ve overcome the staff intoxication problem in a different way, here are some tips on using wine to enhance the flavor of dishes one prepares at home.
Reader’s Question: I may not drink any more, but I still cook with wine. I realize the quality of the wine affects the flavor of your coq au vin, or whatever. So I'm looking for recommendations on relatively inexpensive wines for cooking. My basic cooking style is Italian and/or French Provencal, which are the same thing except in Italian you pronounce all the vowels. However, like the way the languages sort of slide into each other as you sneak from Liguria into Provence, so does the cooking. The further north you go from Rome, the less pasta, and after a while butter creeps in. Any ideas?
You’ll be amused to know French wine regulations do actually specify a boundary which might be called ‘the Butter Line’ in your reference above (no derision of the French army intended). There’s about 30 miles of vineless distance between the Northern Rhone Valley viticultural appellations (like Hermitage) and those of the Southern Rhone (like Chateauneuf-du-Pape). In the south it is not legal to chaptalize wines, i.e. add sugar before fermentation because the grapes didn’t get quite ripe enough. In the north it is legal to chaptalize. Just another reflection of climate: olives for oil on the Mediterranean, but olive trees won’t stand much freezing weather, so cows for butter in the north.
On your wines-for-cooking query, I'd suggest a bag-in-the-box red, for two reasons: (1) you can set it on the counter and dispense suitable amounts over months without any oxidation (the bag inside the box constricts as it's emptied); and (2) the savings on packaging cost is enormous. My favorite right now is Hardy's Shiraz from Australia. At $18 for 3 liters it's equivalent to $4.50 a bottle. It's great for sangria too.
Then for your Mediterranean cuisine I'd also suggest a dry Sherry. I use Gallo's Livingston brand all the time. $6 or $7 for 1.5 L. Sherry will confer a mild nutty note to the dish. If you like the smell, consider trading up to an Amontillado-type from Spain. Something like Hartley's. Little more expensive; lot more of the nutty smell.
Lastly, the white category is more difficult. Partly because more delicate dishes and sauces show the influence of the wine more. You really have three possible directions. If acid tang is what you crave -- say a seafood sauce -- then a $5 Vinho Verdes from Portugal would be ideal. If you want an herbaceous flavor -- say in green chiles bisque -- then I'd go with a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. Veramonte, from the ocean side of the coastal mountains in Chile, is an excellent $10 example. Third, you may be looking for a lifted fragrance -- I'm thinking of a curry. Then I'd be all over that $4 bottle of Clay Station Viognier at Trader Joe's I reviewed over on the Wine Lab website a couple months ago [http://brucecasswinelab.com/blog/top-wine-reviews/].
Another point about using wine in cooking is that it’s usually a good idea to boil the alcohol off before putting the wine into the dish. If you don’t do that, you run the risk of getting a stewed, slightly jammy flavor in your sauce. Particularly when using a heavy red wine. And you will see what I mean when you boil the red wine on the stove. You are only looking to reduce the volume by 15% to 20%, and alcohol boils at about ¾ the temperature for boiling water. Nevertheless you will want to turn on a fan or open some windows, because the stewed smell and the impression of vaporized ethanol in the room will be obvious.
Which brings us to leftover quarter-bottles of cheap wine (someone else must have brought those) after a party at your house. Put them all into a saucepan. Maybe separate reds from whites. Boil off the alcohol. Then pour into a screwtop bottle to save for cooking later. Top up with tap water to minimize the air space in the neck of the bottle. If you don’t boil off the alcohol, over a couple weeks the wine will start to turn to bad quality vinegar. Note it is the alcohol which oxidizes to acetic acid. So, by removing the alcohol, and minimizing the air space, your bottle of potential cooking wine will keep for a very long time (many months) just sitting at room temperature. This makes you appear cool in certain public culinary crises. Your bottle is ready to splash into a too-rapidly-thickening sauce whenever such an emergency might occur. Easy peasey; red wine squeezy.
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