Before you stock up on a big jug of cheap cooking wine, ask yourself one quick question: Would you drink it? While there's little reason to break out the super high-end stuff for the sauce (since most of it gets cooked off, anyway), the general rule of thumb is to cook with the wine you'd gladly sip alongside your meal. If you're going to spend time in the kitchen putting dinner together, the last thing you want to do is run the risk of ruining a recipe by choosing a very low-quality cooking wine that isn't even meant to be used outside of the sauté pan.
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Think about what you're making and the components of the dish first and foremost, then choose your wine. The experts over at Wine Mag have this to say: "Wine contains sugars, acids and tannins, and each of these will show up on the plate." One of their suggestions is to choose wine from the same region that the ingredients in your dish are from. So, for example, if you're making a rich tomato sauce that calls for a 1/4 cup of red wine, consider an Italian varietal like a Barbera or Valpolicella with nice acidity. If you plan to open a pricey red to serve with dinner, ask your local wine seller to recommend a similar bottle at a lower price point so you won't feel bad about surrendering it to the stew.
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Sherry, if you haven't heard, is making a comeback. For those of you who can't shake its reputation as the stuff your grandmother drank, we don't recommend that you break the bank for a thirty dollar bottle of Amontillado just for cooking purposes. If you truly don't plan on imbibing any of the nutty Spanish wine directly, an extremely inexpensive one will do just fine. Same goes for Marsala, an Italian wine that varies wildly in quality. I've only ever tasted one high-end Marsala, and, in my frugal cook's mind, it was too good to use as a de-glazer. For my purposes, the semi-ancient bottle that's been living in my pantry for years is fine for a quick reduction.
The other day, in place of vermouth, which I did not want to purchase special for the recipe I was following, I used a splash of my trusty Marsala, and you know what? The chicken with 40 cloves of garlic recipe that I was following was not lacking in the least.
I have even, in a serious pinch, splashed a third of a beer bottle into a pan to reduce with butter and thyme when I mistakenly stumbled upon a recipe that called for white wine on a night I had none and had already started cooking.
Since it was a decent lager — we're not talking Bud Light here — figured I could probably get away with the modification. I was right; the beer substitute worked like a charm.
Wine or a liquor like vermouth in a recipe is intended to enhance the dish's nuances in a way that chicken stock or plain old water can't (though neither of those will wreck a dish if used in place of booze). Basically, as long as the quality of the product is decent, the end result will be acceptable, even incredible. Of course, as the cooking gurus over at The Kitchn point out: "It's useful to think about the function of wine in the recipe. Does the wine add acidity, sugars, depth, or brightness? Is it used to provide moisture, tenderize meat or to deglaze a pan?" Knowing the liquid's function, as well as how much you need, will help you decide on the proper alcoholic or nonalcoholic substitution, which in time, will make you a better cook.
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