To me, the term cooking wine has two meanings: There's the wine you put in a dish, and―equally as important―the wine you sip while you cook. I think there's no better way to spend an evening than concocting a delicious dish while sipping a good wine for inspiration.
It's easy to find a good wine to drink while you cook―in fact, it's often easier than knowing which wine to cook with. That's because when listed as an ingredient, wine is often suggested in the most generic terms. When a recipe says, "1 cup dry white wine," you're left to wonder: "Will anything from $5 to $25 do?" and "Can the recipe yield equally flavorful results with either a California Chardonnay or French Sancerre?"
Here are guidelines to help you make the best pick.
If a recipe calls for dry white wine, the best all-around choice is a quality American Sauvignon Blanc.
This wine will be very dry and offer a fresh light herbal tilt that will enhance nearly any dish.
If the dish has bold or spicy flavors, go for a more aromatic white wine.
Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Viognier all have dynamic fruity flavors and exotic floral aromas that counterbalance heavily spiced dishes.
If a recipe calls for dry red wine, consider the heartiness of the dish.
A long-simmered leg of lamb or beef roast calls for a correspondingly hearty wine, such as a Petite Syrah or a Zinfandel. A lighter dish might call for a less powerful red―think Pinot Noir or Chianti.
Get to know Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.
These are among the best wines good cooks can have on hand. They pack the most intense flavors and―because they're fortified with a little more alcohol than table wine―have the longest life on the pantry shelf.
Avoid using cooking wines.
Clearly there are far better choices than so-called "cooking Sherry" or other liquids commonly billed as "cooking wine." These are made of a thin, cheap base wine to which salt and food coloring have been added.
Never cook with a wine you wouldn't drink.
A poor quality wine with sour or bitter flavors will only contribute those flavors to the dish. Julia Child once said, "If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one." It's worth the investment to buy a quality wine. Just don't forget to sip a little as you stir.
What Happens to the Alcohol?
Conventional wisdom holds that after a few minutes of cooking, the alcohol in wine evaporates. That's not exactly the case. Research from the USDA shows that 85 percent of the alcohol remains after wine is added to a boiling liquid and then removed from the heat. The longer a dish is cooked, however, the less alcohol remains. If a food is baked or simmered 15 minutes, 40 percent of the alcohol will remain; after one hour, only 25 percent remains; after 2 1/2 hours, just 5 percent. But since wine does not have a large amount of alcohol to begin with (generally 12 to 14 percent), the final amount of alcohol in a dish is not a problem for most people.