As it turns out, cooking wine really isn't worth buying.
Credit: David Loftus

The W. C. Fields quote, "I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food," may make great fodder for refrigerator magnets and dishtowels, but it's also pretty spot-on. Alcohol can add flavor, richness, and depth to so many dishes-and it can also be quite enjoyable to sip a glass while you stir the pot. There are so many ways to cook with alcohol, but one of our most reliable standbys is to make a pan sauce (in brief: after you've removed the meat from the pan, pour in some alcohol and scrape up any stuck-on bits, which will turn those caramelized pieces into a thick and delicious sauce). But alcohol doesn't always need to be heated. Think zabaglione, which incorporates sweet, nutty Marsala; or summer fruits soaked in refreshing rosé and served cold.

Among the types of alcohol you can cook with, wine is probably the most common. And as you've no doubt heard, you should only cook with wine that you'd actually want to drink-so if it tastes or smells off, don't add it to whatever you're making. Solid choices are dry red and white wines, but you can also use rosé, especially if it's a lighter dish featuring chicken or fish. (Just avoid wines labeled "cooking wine," because they often have salt added.) And if you have a really special bottle of wine, you're better off drinking it rather than using it for cooking, since subtle nuances will be lost once the wine is heated and mixed with the other ingredients of the dish.

If a recipe calls for red wine, you're usually fine to use whatever red you've got open, whether it's a pinot noir or a Burgundy (bonus points for using wine that's left over a day or two after opening, which may not taste quite as fresh but is still palatable). The same goes for white wines; our go-tos are crisp whites such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio) with moderate alcohol content (higher alcohol content takes longer to reduce, and may not be as acidic, which means they won't tenderize the food you're cooking).

And don't forget fortified wines, such as dry sherry (great for deglazing), marsala (aside from the above mentioned zabaglione, it's a star player in Chicken Marsala), and madeira (perfect for a classic madeira sauce, to accompany dishes like beef Wellington). Spirits and beer can work in place of wine in many recipes, too. If a recipe calls for a small amount of white wine (e.g., just a few spoonfuls), you can swap in vermouth; for larger amounts, such as a half-cup or more, try a light beer. And when a recipe suggests red wine, you can probably get away with using a darker beer.


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