Cooking With Wine

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When You Actually Put It In the Food

By Deirdre Bourdet

Some may consider the deliberate pouring of wine into anything other than a drinking vessel or eager mouth a shameful, wasteful act.  While I see their point, wine-based cooking also happens to be one of the most delicious, easy, and traditional techniques for creating wine-friendly food.  A splash of red to deglaze your meat searing pan, a dash of white to loosen up those all-too-quickly browning onions, and you've suddenly added worlds of flavor, depth, and sophistication to your creation.
Then there are the truly wine-based recipes (coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, moules marinière, etc.) where the wine takes center stage.  Typically there is a great deal of reduction involved--simmering the wine with other ingredients to concentrate flavor and reduce the volume of liquid to a thicker, more sauce-like consistency.  These recipes make you confront the question of which bottle to use head-on, because the quality of the wine reduction really sets the tone of the dish.
When a recipe calls for a full bottle or more, people tend to want to use the cheapest option available.  Makes sense - better to splurge on the wine you'll be pouring into the stemware, not the saucepan.  In my opinion, however, it's not worth buying cooking wines you wouldn't also drink on their own.  If the wine is yucky, you're not going to want to put too much of it in your mouth.  You're also not going to want to concentrate its flavors and let it determine your main course's flavor profile.  You'll probably only want to use it in tiny dashes (deglazing, etc.), leaving most of the bottle left over, with the desire to drink the rest growing smaller every day. No savings there.

At the same time, you don't have to spend $40 on a cooking wine!  A lot of more expensive wines actually don't hold up well when reduced by one-half or more--which is what many wine recipes call for.  They become too sweet or flabby, they lose the distinctive texture or character that made them expensive, and sometimes the reds throw off a lot of unattractive solid particles (which look like sediment, but aren't) as they reduce.  The key is finding a wine that is reasonably balanced--not too sweet or fruit-forward, not too acidic, and not too tannic. You can find those in the $10-12 range pretty easily.    

Using cheaper wine that is less exaggerated in style allows you to reduce without fear, save some cash, and happily drink the rest of the bottle, too - preferably with the dish you just made, which should be a fabulous match.

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