While you don't want to reach for a pricey bottle, you also want to avoid using cooking wine.

By Caroline Miguelez
July 12, 2021
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What's on the menu tonight? If you're having spaghetti all'ubriaco (otherwise known as Drunken Pasta), beef tenderloin, or topping a dish with a red wine sauce, you're going to need a great bottle of red wine to cook with. For the seasoned chef, using wine while cooking is just one of their many flavor-boosting secrets. Although underutilized in home kitchens, adding a little bit of wine to your dinner—both in the dish and glass—can take your meal to the next level. The most intimidating part of cooking with wine is picking the correct bottle (or box!).

chef cooking with red wine
Credit: Ted Levine / Getty Images

Red Wine for Cooking Versus Red Wine for Drinking

First, let's talk about what happens when you cook with wine. Adding wine (typically anywhere from ten to sixteen percent ABV) to a hot pan will cause a few reactions. The alcohol will burn off, leaving your dish with beautiful flavor but none of the booze. This means that it's safe for everyone, whether they drink or not (but always double check with your guests to make sure). The remaining wine left in your dish is a cornucopia of flavors. It intensifies the natural essence of your dish without over-powering it.

A surprising fact is that great wine does not necessarily make great cooking wine, especially when it comes to red wine. When cooking with red wines, we recommend you choose a wine with low to moderate tannins and oak influence. Avoid super grippy, high tannin wines with lots of oak influence as these will cause your dish to develop an undesirable, bitter aftertaste. Not sure which wines are best? Sit back and let us guide you.

And don't forget that when it comes to cooking with wine of any type, you're going to burn off a majority of what can differentiate an expensive bottle from a less expensive one. When selecting a bottle to cook with, your dollar is going to go a lot further than it does with drinking wine. That said, there is a thing as too cheap. Avoid wines labeled as "Cooking Wine" as the poor quality will be reflected in your finished dish.

The Best Red Wines for Cooking

As you stroll down the aisle of your wine shop, narrow down your search to the merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and red blends section. Once there, think economically. Your bottle of red cooking wine should be between $3 and $15 a bottle. There's really no reason to spend more, especially because once you open it, you have about 48 hours to use it or lose it. Wine will expire due to oxidation in that time. By shopping within this lower price point, you will also ensure that the style of wine doesn't have too much tannin or oak. Big tannins and vanilla-like oak are qualities typically found in more expensive bottles of wine and, although they make great drinking wines, they are not the best wines to cook with.

Have half a bottle of red wine, perhaps pinot noir or Chianti (both low tannin varietals), left over from dinner two nights ago? Feel free to use that for the recipe instead of throwing it down the drain. Sometimes it's about using what you have in order to make a delicious meal that's way tastier than the sum of its parts. That's the magic of cooking!

If you cook with wine often, don't be afraid to purchase Black Box Red Blend ($20.99, drizly.com). It's shaped conveniently to store in your pantry and lasts about six weeks because of the airtight wine-bladder. The wine is neutral in flavor and low in alcohol, making it an ideal cooking wine. You may be surprised to know that many great restaurants and chefs use Black Box as their cooking wine. It's economical (about $1.33 per cup), and leads to delicious results.

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