Cooking Wines: What They Are and Which To Use

For about as long as there has been cooking, there has been wine. In fact, the very first cookbook on record in the West, De Re Coquinaria by the Apicus, contains many recipes that call for wine, while rice wines and fruit wines have been used in Eastern preparations for centuries.

In those days, at least for common folk, the wine used was generally whatever wine was around, open, and beginning to oxidize. These days, you’re presented with any number of options when you want to cook with wine. Should you opt for madeira or sherry? Do you want a dry red or a sweeter red? Rice cooking wine or sake?

There’s a lot to sort through, which is why our Kitchen Crew is here to help. Here is a full, in-depth guide to knowing how and why to cook with wine.

One basic tenet about cooking with wine is that it is used in place of water in many recipes. This is because it achieves the same effect, whether that is hydrating, deglazing, or what, but with added flavor and added benefits.The acid in wine can help tenderize proteins, which is why cooking a beef stew for hours with red wine leads to such great results. Wine also has the effect of dissolving both water-soluble and oil-soluble components, making it the perfect vehicle for deglazing a pan.

Beyond braising meat or deglazing sauces, you might also try it for poaching fruit like pears, marinading meat or fish, or cooking grains like risotto. Just a little bit can go a long way–remember, you’re looking to season the dish with the flavor or aroma of the wine, but not overwhelm the flavor of every other ingredient.

There are countless subcategories of cooking wine we could dive into, but we’ll stick to the six main types here: dry reds and whites, sweet whites, dry oxidized wines, sweet oxidized wines, fortified wines, and rice wines.

Dryer wines are generally better suited to cooking than sweet, jammy reds. Since wine reduces as it cooks, sweeter wines can become cloying, throwing off the balance of a savory dish–unless, of course, you’re using them in desserts. Dry reds (any drinking reds) make for great braises and stews like Beef Bourguignon or Coq au Vin, while dry whites can be added to cream sauces, risottos, and lighter soups.

Sweet white wines, while not being ideal for much savory cooking, work great in delicate dessert preparations. They combine both their inherent sweetness with a bit of acidity and delicate, floral flavors, making them a great base for poached pears, poached rhubarb, and more. That said, as long as you add some salt and often a touch of lemon, they can be used to cook delicate white fish as well.
Dry oxidized (which is to say, aged and concentrated) red wines like madeira and sherry pack a bit more of a punch, and are generally used more sparingly. Use them to deglaze a pan or to marinade proteins. Marsala wine falls in this category, though it can range from nearly dry to very sweet, and it’s the base for the classic, more potent dish chicken marsala.

Dry fortified whites like vermouth and vin jaune have some added alcohol to prevent full oxidization and can be used to steam shellfish or cook fish. Sweeter fortified or dessert wines are a natural pairing for desserts. A caramel or reduction made from Pedro Ximinez or Vin Santo can go great with flan, cake, or ice cream, as it has both sweet and acidic elements. One trick we love: try adding a touch of flake salt to finish these boozy desserts, which brings out an extra layer of flavor and mellows out any overly sweet notes.

Rounding out western cooking wines, there’s Port, another fortified wine that’s perfect for soaking dense cakes like fruitcake, or pouring straight over a dessert before serving. If you’re feeling bold, you might even try a flambé.

Finally, there are the myriad of options for rice wines in China, Japan, and beyond, including but not limited to mirin, sake, and the Chinese cooking wine shaoxing. Adding a little bit to a dashi or a stock can take the flavor to the next level, while using them in a marinade can both tenderize and flavor proteins before cooking. Try out some other classic eastern preparations, too, like poaching chicken in a stock made with cooking wine and soy sauce or making dipping sauces out of miso and sake.

Can I use just any wine?
This can be a matter of debate amongst cooks, with some saying that any wine will do, and some only opting for nicer wines. We in the Kitchen Crew land somewhere in the middle. Think of it this way: any wine that has been open too long and has developed off-flavors and vinegary notes might add those same drawbacks to whatever dish they are cooked in. At the same time, cooking subdues the most delicate, nuanced notes of excellent wine, so you don’t need to spring for the pricey stuff just to cook with it.

One thing that just about every cook agrees on: you can largely ignore buying things labeled as “cooking wine” at the grocery store. These are packed with preservatives and salt to prevent full oxidization, but also to mask the fact that they are very low quality wines in the first place. Simply use what you have on hand, even if it’s been open for a handful of days, and add in whatever salt and acid are needed to balance the dish while it’s cooking. (Many boxed wine companies sell handy 500ml sizes that make purchasing wine just for cooking a snap.) If the recipe calls for one specific type of wine, seek that out to match the specific flavor profile you are looking for.

With that, it’s time to get cooking. Grab a bottle of wine, start marinading or braising your protein of choice, and don’t forget to save a glass for yourself!