So last week, my kid asks me about cooking with wine. Namely, she was trying to figure out how to interpret a recipe calling out dry white wine, and couldn’t figure out which white wines were technically considered dry. Well, that in and of itself is the current post on our wine blog OddBallGrape.com. But while few recipes are about the wine, cooking with wine is a major part of building flavor into a dish.
When we’re talking about wine in recipes, we’re generally talking about a dry wine, one that doesn’t have sweet flavor from leftover sugar in the wine. That’s because what wine generally adds is acidity. Now, that may sound pretty icky – acid is that awful sour flavor you get in lemons. But when you add enough sugar to lemon juice, it tastes pretty good. That’s because the sugar counteracts the sour acid and the sour acid balances out the super sweetness. In other words, the two flavors balance and play off each other.
The same thing happens when you add wine to a dish. In addition, when you cook it for a longer time, that acid softens and adds an interesting note to the whole thing, rather than just taking over. If you’ve ever eaten a musty-tasting pot roast or a stew that just seemed rather flat and flavorless, then some sort of wine or acid was missing.
When Cooking with Wine is good
You can add wine any time you want a brighter flavor in a dish, not just when the recipe says to. For example, you’re making some gravy for a meatloaf or some steaks you’ve cooked. Adding a bit of wine after you’ve made your roux (check out the How to Make Gravy post here) will make your gravy taste rich and lively rather than just okay. Say you’ve fried that steak or pork chop and you want to get all those tasty stuck on bits up. Pour in some wine, maybe a quarter to half a cup and bring it to a boil, then scrape all those bits up. It’s a technique called de-glazing and it’s wonderful for making sauces and gravies, plus it makes your pan a lot easier to clean. Once you’ve cooked your wine for a bit, you can add some butter or cream or even just some extra broth (beef broth for beef or pork, chicken broth for chicken or even fish, although there is such a thing as fish stock or broth, too). Reduce it by boiling it down a bit, and bingo, you have sauce.
Another time you want to add wine is when you’re making a stew or a braise. In two classic French recipes, you add a whole bottle or two to braise the meat – coq au vin (chicken) and boeuf bourguignon (beef). Braising is cooking meat or vegetables at low heat for a long time with liquid in the bottom of the pan, as opposed to submerging them in liquid and cooking on low heat for a long time, which is stew. You may not want to go as far as using a whole bottle of wine, but even a half cup or so will add a lot of flavor.
The trick to remember is that the less time you’ll be cooking the dish or sauce, the less wine you want to use. Wines, especially dry red wines, can be pretty strongly flavored. It’s one of our mantras, right? You can always add more, you can’t add less.
When Not to Add Wine
Basically, you don’t generally want to add wine to anything that is already pretty acidic. I once made the mistake of adding white wine to a chicken picatta sauce, which already has lemon juice in it. That was a bit on the tart side. Tomatoes also have a fair amount of acid in them, so unless I’m making a tomato-based sauce that’s going to cook for several hours, I’ve stopped adding wine. Instead, I add vodka, and boy, does that kick up the flavor.
So go ahead and experiment and see what happens. You might even have a glass to drink while you finish dinner. It’s one of the things that makes cooking with wine fun.