Chefs and home cooks alike have long cooked with wine because of the extra flavor it adds to food. Among the myriad of choices dry white wines are one of the most commonly called for in recipes. But what are the common types of white wine which are used in making meals and what do they add? Some of the names you may have seen in a coookbook include dry white wine, Sherry, Marsala, and Madeira to name a few. These different types of wine have a variety of effects on the taste of food and can be used to easily and substantially change a dish. It’s important to note that because the wine is good for drinking doesn’t make it the best choice to use during cooking. We do always suggest cooking with a glass of wine for drinking near by though. Don’t believe us? Just watch Jacque Pepin and Julia Child cook.
Cooking with wine is a great way for you to take things up a notch in the kitchen. It can instantly add some extra flavors to your dinner and the compounds found in wine change with heat. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that adding white wine to your meal is meant for only professional chefs, its something that you can do in your very own kitchen. Anyone who has ever had a taste of savory chicken masala or white wine clam sauce at a restaurant, can understand the depth of taste wine can provide.
Why Dry White Wine?
Often dry white wine is preferred to avoid adding any additional sweetness to the dish you’re cooking. As the alcohol burns off in the pan, and evaporation kicks in the flavor will concentrate, increasing the perception of a wines sweetness exponentially. The same is true of the acidic character of a dry white wine, which is why dry white wine often substitutes for the use of vinegar or lemon. In both instances the goal would be to increase acid in the dish, without adding the intense tartness of vinegar or the distinct flavor of lemons.
Frequently a recipe will call for the wine to be used to deglaze a pan. Don’t be intimidated by the term, it’s literally just adding wine to a hot pan that had something cooking in it already. The idea is you’ve finished browning whatever your cooking but want all those delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Easy, grab a spoon and some white wine. Add just enough to stir around the pan knocking the browning free, keeping the pan on the heat to begin burning off the alcohol and thicken the mixture. This pan sauce is excellent choice when making sautéed fish, mushrooms, pork, or chicken. Dry white wine is the preference for deglazing a pan as it doesn’t change the color of your sauce, and will brighten the flavor noticeably. A few other uses could be adding a splash of dry white wine to finish a risotto and add some extra punch. It can also be used to steam up your pot of shellfish, the basis of the famous Belgian steamed mussels and french frys dish, Moules Frites .
It’s important to take a look at the most common types of wine that are used during cooking to make sure you’ll get the right flavor, before you start cooking. One last tip, remember you can always add more, you can’t take any out.
A note on “cooking wines”
While shopping for wines to use in the kitchen you may stumble upon wine labeled “cooking wine”. We’d recommend avoiding these products for a variety of reasons. First off it’s a sales gimmick not something special. In fact wines that are labeled as “cooking wines” often have stabilizers and additives which commonly are added as a salt. This can mean an increase in sodium as well as unpredictable flavors. The rule to use is, if you wouldn’t drink it, why would you eat it?
Wines for cooking
It has been established that the common white wines called for in cooking are the crispy or acidic ones. However, when choosing this type of white wine its important that you take note of its alcohol percentage and varietal. Usually, the best choice of crisp white wines is those with an alcohol percentage of about 10 – 13%. Choosing a wine with a higher alcohol percentage will take a longer time to reduce and can contribute sweet flavors.
The best examples of dry crisp white wines are; unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. Of these three types listed above, Pinot Grigio is considered to be the most versatile of them all. However, the other two have their unique advantages. Sauvignon Blanc is perfect with seafood while Chardonnay can help to make your recipe richer.
Marsala is an Italian fortified wine from the Sicilian city of Marsala. Fortification is a process of stabilizing wines against oxidation and became particularly popular in England in the 17 and 1800’s. This can be done by adding a neutral grape spirit, by heating and therfore oxidizing the wine, or as the case with Marsala and Sherry, a process for allowing a beneficial “flora” to form on top of barrel aging wines. The wines from one vintage are used to fortify the next through a complicated barrel arranging dance called in perpetum in Italy. The primary white grapes in Marsala are Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino but other grapes are allowed as well. There are non fortified wines made in the Marsala region of Italy, but to be labeled Marsala under the EU rules, the wine must be fortified. There are sweet and dry versions of Marsala, so be sure to get what your looking for. Sec is the keyword for finding dry Marsala. Sweet Marsala can be used in boozy desserts like tiramisu, but be careful not to add i to your chicken Marsala or you’ll have a disappointing evening in store. Due to the more viscous nature of a Marsala, it can be added to lots of creamy dishes, but remember to add it before other liquid ingredients to burn off the alcohol, or the boozy flavor will come through.
Sherry is Spains version of Marsala, though it has been making fortified wine for much longer. The name Sherry is an anglicization of Xeres (Jerez) the port City in the south of Spain that is home to the wine. The primary grape used to make Sherry is Palmino, but sweet versions often blend Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel to the finished wine. An important note on Sherry: People often confuse Port and Sherry, which is a huge mistake. Port is often deep brown to red, comes for Portugal, and most importantly is fortified with grain spirit mid way through fermentation, stopping the fermentation and leaving behind sweetness. Sherry is fermented out fully before being fortified, and entering into the deeply confusing, rules rich process known as the solera. We highly recommend you learn about the solera process as it is fascinating and unique to this wine, but is an article (or two) unto itself. For our purposes solera is a barrel aging process, where older vintages are blended with newer ones to make the best product. There are many classifications of Sherry including Manzanilla, fino, Amantillado, and olorosso. There are many distinguishing features of these wines but for cooking a safe bet is a Manzanilla. These wines have been fortified up to 15% which is still low enough to allow the positive “flora” to form in barrel, giving it it’s distinct flavor and keeping it white, if a little orange. An added benefit of cooking with fortified wines is their shelf life. These wines were fortified against oxidation, putting you as the chef in the position of not needing to worry about the bottle going bad. These wines can remain good for months after opening, but we’d be surprised if it takes that long.
Madeira originates from the beautiful island of Madeira which is located Southwest of Portugal and due West from Morocco. It’s location and governmental connection to Portugal made it a perfect stopping off point for British ships heading to the East Indies. The ships would stop in port to pick up supplies, including fortified wines. The barrels of wine would be loaded into the front of the ship as ballast, where the gentle rocking and constant heat had a unique effect on the wine. This process of heating and rocking is now replicated in modern day Madeira using heating coils and concrete mixing tanks, but although the process has changed the flavor remains the same. Like it’s other counterparts in the fortified wine world, Madeira has many classifications to tell you how long it’s been aged and it’s sweetness level but for a treat hunt down a bottle of sercical Maidera. Sercial is the dryest of the Madeira’s and is named for the grape that goes in the wine. Lot’s of different grapes can be blended into Madeira wines, but any color you might see will come from oxidation, not grape skin contact. Keep that in mind when adding it to dishes, as a small amount of color change is typical. This is a key reason Madeira is often used with beef, where it can add the depth of flavor without affecting color. One last note on Madeira, cooking Madeira is often adjuncted with salt and pepper making it unpredictable. Madeira is shelf stable inexpensive, so skip the shortcut gimmick and get the real deal for the best flavor
An exception: Sparkling Wine
Rarely if ever will you come across a recipe calling for Sparkling Wines to be cooked with (unless it’s a mimosa recipe, we know we know). This is for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is it’s hard to make sparkling wine and as a result it is expensive by comparison. The presence of CO2 also changes the flavor of dishes dramatically. So why are we talking about it here. We think people are missing an opportunity. The next time you throw a party, don’t dump out that left open bottle of bubbly get creative. Sparkling wine makes excellent sorbet, with just a little elbow grease and a freezer. You can also make your own Champagne Vinaigrette to impress the in laws. Flat Sparkling wine, a splash or two of white wine vinegar (apple cider vinegar if its to dry) and some good olive oil , and whisk away. Add this to fruit or a nice summer salad for a special treat.