The whole question about using fine wine in cooking, and about fine wine at all, is really not just a snob thing. I think most people will agree that the quality of the ingredients in a dish correlates very strongly to the quality of the finished product; the other critical factor being how those ingredients are handled to maximize their potential. Good wine does require some pretty careful handling, but the end result definitely shows through in a dish if it's done right.
While you often do get what you pay for in wine, high price alone does not always mean great flavor, or suitability for cooking. Shop around for good bargains in simple, well balanced, young and powerful wines that will stand up to being simmered down in a sauce or splashed in a dish to add flavor.
My favorite simple cooking wine standby is Parducci. Their wines are inexpensive but do have all the basics you wantgood fruit, enough tannin and texture to balance out, and a fair amount of structure. Nothing truly great or magnificent, but enjoyable to drink with simple and hearty food and fine to cook with for simple dishes. Parducci in the bolognese sauce and a glass of it with the spaghetti is a wonderful, classic Italian dinner for not very much money at all.
Can I ever use the cheap stuff?
A lot depends on what you're cooking. If you are making a spaghetti sauce, go ahead and dump in that inexpensive, tannic, juicy and assertive red. It does not matter much; the intense tomato flavors will wreck the more delicate aromas and all of the structure of a really good red wine anyways. Don't even bother adding a white wine, or a wimpy red; the tomatoes will just swallow the wine right up and never give it back.
Just keep in mind that if the wine tastes actually bad, ie, it has significant flaws that make it unpleasant to drink, those flaws are going to carry right through into whatever you cook with it. So make that "inexpensive wine" and not "cheap wine", please. Thunderbird is Right Out. Don't even think about Boone Hill.
Great wine leftovers are good for
Since my taste buds outvote my actual capacity to absorb alcohol, every time I open a bottle of something fine and I don't have several friends over to share, some really good wine often ends up leftovers. A fine way to use such leftovers is to cook with it in a way that actually showcases the quality of the original wine.
If you buy a good bottle to match the meal, open the bottle a few hours early and use 1/21 cup in cooking, then put it under nitrogen gas or let it breathe till dinner, your cooking expenditure is completely justified.
Cooking does accelerate (and change) the developing process of a wine, so you can use it directly from the undecanted bottle. You can also use "dregs" and sediment in a sauce, if the taste is strong but not objectionable.
Sheee-it, would you really cook with a
bottle of the expensive stuff?
Believe it. If you are a skilled cook, you really can create an end product that actually tastes like it contains a glassor a bottleof Mouton or d'Yquem.
I have added rare and delicious white wines to fine homemade poultry or rabbit sausages; the freshness and the acidity of the wines really does come through, along with their richness and complexity. A great Sauternes can be used to cream the finest sweet, fresh blue cheese you can find, and if you layer the results between crumbly slices of warm black walnut pastry and serve it with fresh, crisp apples and cracked black pepper, you will find that you did not pour your d'Yquem in vain. More than one grand cru Bordeaux in my house has found its last glass or two tipped into the saucepot along with black truffles and demiglace to achieve an end result that still sings with the subtle and complex character of the wine.
It really possible to take a fine wine and by very slowly reducing it at 180 degrees uncovered to 1/4 or less of its original volume, to preserve some reasonable part of its flavor intact. The key is "very slowly", and of course, "some reasonable". Some more delicate wines will not survive any mistreatment at all, let alone simmering.
Choose wines with plenty of youth and power if you plan a reductiona fragile old wine will simply fall apart and die sighing and whispering notes of its former glory as you murder it in the pan.
Showcasing Fine Wines
There are a few tricks to showcasing fine wines in your cooking. One is
"don't cook wine very long". Or if you must cook it long to get a
reduction, as in when you are doing a demiglace, cook it seperately in a
nonreactive saucepan or enamel skillet. Cook it down slowly, never
allow it to come to a boil. Generally, the older a wine is, the less it
will take to such treatments as hard reduction. Great but still young,
tannic reds take very well to hard reduction (by 1/2 or more) and then the
addition of some demiglace or mirepoix, as will an intensely charactered
Chianti, Barolo, Pinot Noir or Sangiovese. The more powerful a wine is to
start with, the better it will take rough treatment with heat in the
Assemble the rest of the sauce ingredients requiring long cooking first, and marry them down by simmering, perhaps with a lesser but similarly charactered wine, until they are close to perfection and you are ready to add the finishing touch of the glass of great Bordeaux or Burgundy or the lush Sauternes. If the wine is old and fragile, actually turn off the heat on the sauce just before you add it. The sauce will be alcoholic. Warn your guests; some may be allergic, or have religious or personal objections and prefer to abstain.
OK, so how do you do that trick anyways?
The most important factor in showcasing truly great wines in a sauce or a braised dish is not something that can be quantified as simply as cooking time or temperature. You need to taste the wine and carefully choose the ingredients and textures that will marry with the wine, emphasize, echo and fully support its complex flavor structure.
I have had great luck with using black truffles to support great Bordeaux, Oregon white truffles to underscore a savory Cabernet or Pinot, veal demiglace to complement a fine Burgundy and light but flavorful fresh meat and root vegetable mirepoix to support the richness of most of the fine white wines that retain some acid. A Sauternes is a trickier balancing act to cook with, and I usually try to pair it with either foie gras, sweet blue cheese or a lush fruit-based dessert with some dairy.
Four elements of what the ingredients and cooking process must do will determine whether the final product carries the character of the wine you started with: marry, emphasize/echo, complement and support.
To marry the wine with a dish requires a basic canvas to work with that unites all of the elements of the dish, and that all those elements be in balance and harmony with one another. Stock or demiglace is one good canvas or overall theme if you are working with a meat sauce. Dairy is another. Tomato is another, but don't use a high acid vegetable like this unless you have an unsubtle, tannic, high acid red to showcase. For a more fragile red or a white, base your sauce on a mirepoix of more subtle root vegetables instead, avoiding more than a bare touch of wine-hating celery and onions.
Echo, echo, echo!
To more closely recreate the original tasting signature of the wine in its ideal state, you can add ingredients that help bolster, underscore or even replace some of the key elements of the flavors and aromas you want to keep. Is this a cheap trick? Sure. Does it work? You betcha.
To ensure you can continue to taste the wine in its final form, you should select ingredients that emphasize and echo elements that are already present in the wine. It seems simple, but it isn'tthe charm some wines is that they have a complexity of flavors and aromas that just don't work if you try to put them together any other way. So choose to highlight the elements of the wine you aren't sure will survive otherwise, and only those elements that really are highlights. Overkill is not good.
If that tawny Port has a deliciously nutty aroma that you want to recapture in a sauce, and the simmering kills it, a handful of ground pecans in the sauce added towards the end can resurrect it deliciously. I have revived the rich, forward blackberry fruit components in a luscious Zinfandel I made into a sauce byyou guessed ittossing in some blackberries. It's a matter of finding what tastes you enjoy in the original glass of wine, and making those tastes happen in a similar combination and balance in the sauce.
No, you won't have a sauce that is as good to drink as the original fine wine. You will have a sauce that will complement and echo that particular wine very nicely indeed, and which will have some of the similar flavors and aromas that made you enjoy that wine in the first place. If you are very lucky or very skilled, you may even achieve a similar level of complexity and developing tastes in the sauce as you might find in a glass of very good wine.
Complement is what you do, compliment is what
your guests will do!
Some ingredients don't taste like anything in the wine, but they will nicely complement it. Traditional wisdom on wine/food pairings will help you here. This is where you should start thinking about textures as well.
No ingredient in a dish should overwhelm the wine. The other ingredients should be quieter than the wine you are trying to showcase, designed to support and buoy the central ingredient rather than overpower it. A touch of something in the onion familya bare touchcan do well by a good tannic red or a crisply acid white, but it should be a short grace note to support the structure of the dish rather than a loud clamor. A more fragile and subtle older wine needs the savoriness toned down so that its more complex but fainter savor can be discerned more clearly. Go easy on the salt and use freshly ground black pepper only if it seems merited, after the dish is complete.
Sigh. I'm not following this. How can I
Now, if you're sincerely interested in cooking with great wines to have read this far, but you are not enough of a cook to have any clue what I am talking about, cheat. Here's how. Add a glass of good wine to a cup or two of not very strongly flavored, simple sauce that you have simmering gently on the stove. Turn the heat off.
Your basic sauce can be no more than flour fried slowly in an equal part of butter until lightly browned with a bit of milk and good broth added to thin it to the desired consistency; be sure it is cooked well before adding the wine. A good simple sauce to enhance with a strong young red wine starts with fresh tomatoes simmered down slowly in olive oil until they collapse into a savory paste, at which point you can add herbs and garlic and onions and simmer down some more.
If you feel like experimenting, throw other things into the sauce that the taste of the wine reminds you of. Fruit works surprisingly well. So do peppers and olives and savory vegetables. You can do quite a nice thing with an herby, peppery Sauvignon Blanc by adding it to a basic light cream sauce and throwing in diced bell peppers and freshly ground black pepper. Italian herbs work wonderfully with a full-bodied, tannic red. You can experiment with lemon, lime and orange to bring out citrus notes in a Chardonnay.
Why do people flame Cognac and brandy, anyhow? Should
I use the good stuff?
Essentially the same principle applies to flaming off liqueurs and spirits as to reducing wine. You are flaming off a large part of the alcohol content and applying high heat for a brief time to the liquid. It does change the taste structure, but the basic flavor elements of the liqueur remain intact, and you can still taste them. So yes, use something that is at least drinkable. Don't waste the old, subtle and fragile Cognac on a flamed sauce, but do pick up a decently sturdy brandy, an assertive Calvados or a woodsy Armagnac whose strength of character will survive in the sauce.
Poaching with Sauternes Oooh, that's
An uncomfy number of wine recipes that call for Sauternes want you to use large amounts of them to poach something in. Ow, that's expensive. I have found that substituting almost any non-oaky, full bodied and lush white wine does perfectly well for those sorts of uses. Semillon would be my first pick, failing that a Chardonnay that was not aged with an entire garden patio's worth of oak chips floating in the barrel. Soleo makes a wonderful semi-sweet white wine that is very inexpensive and which substitites perfectly well for a Sauternes for most cooking uses. A Sauvignon Blanc that isn't too grassy or herby would be a fine choice.
If you can't find a sweet wine to poach in, adding sugar to a dry white wine is probably not a good substitute. The residual sugar in a Sauternes is not generally translated at full strength into a finished dish, especially if it is used to poach or marinate. Sugar added to the wine has a tendency to cling to whatever the solids are and to affect the finished product, particularly if not fully dissolved. Just use the sweetest ordinary Chardonnay you can find, and hope for the best.
Good places to put wine in your food
Cooking with wine can be a pleasure and an enhancement to good food. Don't cook with what you wouldn't drink, and don't use nasty ingredients. You absolutely cannot make a dish any better than the worst of its components. If you splurge on some items and skimp on others, the dish will taste more of skimp than splurge, as one off note can put everything else into disharmony. Buy those fresh tomatoes and take the time to cook them down. Use real butter or a fine grade of olive oil. Grind your pepper fresh and pay a few cents extra for good kosher salt. The results on your table will reward you.
"As viscous as motor oil swirled in a swamp, redolent of burnt bell peppers nested in by incontinent mice and a finish reminiscent of the dregs of a stale can of Coca-Cola that someone has been using as an ashtray. Not a bad drink, though."
Excerpt from "The Moose Turd Wine Tasting" by T. A. Nonymous
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