It must have been a glorious day when an imaginative cook decided to add wine to a stew. The results were far beyond his expectations and those of his guests, and ever since, at least in wine growing regions all over the world, chefs have been using wine to impart more taste to their dishes.
Besides wine, spirits, beers, and liqueurs are used in cooking. Spirits are often used for flaming or in cakes to keep them moist. It adds certain flair to the dining room atmosphere, and imparts a particular flavour. Imagine flaming sautéed shrimps with Pernod, or bananas with rum. Wine or beer is often used to marinate tough cuts of meat or vegetables.
Cooking wine available in grocery stores contains two per cent salt; most are oxidized, old and gutless. They fail to impart anything to the dish, if anything, rendering the dish worse. Always use a good quality wine that you would drink without hesitation.
The very idea of using wine in cooking – to provide an extra taste dimension and spice up the dish is defeated if a poor quality wine is employed. Concentrating the flavour of the wine by cooking it down does the trick.
Table wine contains anywhere from six to 16 per cent ABV alcohol. During cooking, some of the alcohol and much of the water evaporate, concentrating the taste of the liquid. If you have a poor quality wine, you can imagine the results of reducing it.
Reducing cooking juices, and binding it with beurre manie or small pieces of cold butter, or simply using a mixture of flour and water can create an instant sauce. The last technique binds the sauce, but may impart an undesirable taste of four if not properly and long enough cooked.
Cooking with wine closes the circle of enjoying a glass while dining, and there is nothing quite like the aromas wafting out of a slow-braising meat pot.
Many dishes were literally designed around wine i.e coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne, stracotto al Barolo, steak au poivre flambé, crepes Suzette just to name a few.
Try a little dark red wine in your spaghetti sauce and see what happens to an everyday dish, or poach a ripe pear in Beuajolais. You will be pleasantly surprised how a little wine changes the taste of a humdrum recipe.
Use non-reactive pots and pans when cooking with wine. Always use good quality wine and try to use the ingredients of the recipe as given, rather than substitutes, or more importantly if the recipe calls for San Marzzano tomatoes then use what is recommended.
Substitutes may work occasionally but mostly do not. If you have no white wine on hand but dry white vermouth, go ahead. Always use dry wines in cooking, except for desserts, and alcohol of any sort must be employed in small quantities. Too much alcohol overwhelms the flavour of the main ingredient. Essentially, wine must be regarded as a consort and food as the prince.
Alcohol releases and magnifies flavours of other ingredients that fail to dissolve in water. Vodka for example in penne alla vodka has a very distinct tomato flavour, as alcohol is a powerful “solvent”.
Generally, use dry white wine with light foods like white-fleshed fish, and red with meats. Leafy vegetables benefit from white wine, root vegetables from red.
You can even create dried fruit compote with port wine. Once tasted, you will never want to eat any other compote.
Remember when you cook with alcohol you will have it in the food, regardless of length of cooking.
Simmering a dish for hours still leaves five per cent alcohol, but simmering for 15 minutes 40 per cent. Marinating in the refrigerator preserves 72 – 75 per cent, flaming dessert adding alcohol to a boiling sauce 85 per cent.
When a recipe calls for Grand Marnier, or Cointreau or a specific whisk(e)y, try to use what is called for if you want to be successful
Mussels mariniere style, risottos with seafood, Beaujolais-poached pears, dried fruit compote in port are easy to produce and are delicious to boot.