Wine to Cook With

June 11, 2015

“Don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink.” I love a good quote like that. It makes you think you have to cook with Grange, or Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay. Even if you don’t drink those wines, or even like them, the suggestion is that cooking wines must be grand.

Well, I tend to think that’s what it’s getting at. I heartily disagree with this sentiment, and having spent many years around commercial kitchens (and knowing a thing or two about preparing food myself), have witnessed wine of a status far below what the chefs or I would drink, being added to food that turns out to be pretty amazing.

Let’s look at the process of cooking in the most simplistic way. Cooking makes things hot and breaks things down. In cooking, there are usually other ingredients like meat, and fat, oil, salt, herbs and god forbid, capsicum. In short, there are some pretty influential flavours in cooking, none of which, I hasten to add, I would put into a glass of wine I was interested in drinking.

The saying “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” is also particularly loose. What if, like many people I speak to, you don’t drink white wine - do you add red wine to you seafood dishes? Do you throw in a glass of big Shiraz to steam your mussels? Of course you don’t.  What if you don’t drink sherry but need to cook something Spanish? These are the tough questions you should ask yourself.

Cook with any wine you can get your hands on, but bear a few of these simple tips in mind. When you make a slow-cooked dish like lamb shanks, you’re going to be adding wine to a dish that will be cooking for hours. Don’t waste something delicious. I often (in fact, always) have a bottle open that is being used for cooking. It has been open for over a year and is continually topped up with left over wine.

Yes, there is such a thing as left over wine. I don’t mind if the wine starts to oxidise, or heads towards a more sour expression - it merely adds a little je ne sais pas to the dish. The key to this type of cooking wine is this: the heavier the wine, the more impact it will have. But a cheapish, light red that you may not want to drink while sitting o the couch will do the job just nicely. White wine is also more than useful in this situation, and although you won’t get the same colour intensity, it will offer its cooked-out flavour just as well. A good slug of white also works perfectly in a slowly stirred risotto.

For using wine in the last stages of cooking, I don’t recommend the addition of oxidised wine. In this instance, if you are finishing off a cream sauce or something delicately delicious, use fresh wine, recently opened, though it needn’t be Grand Cru white Burgundy. I would use something unwooded though - Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc will hit the mark.

If you need to poach a pear or peach or some other fruit for dessert, there is no need to buy really expensive sticky to complete the job. Not because it wouldn’t be delicious, but I’d just rather save it for drinking. A cheat’s guide around this is to use some fruity white wine and add sugar. It’s simple. Just remember you’ll be cooking the wine for a long time and it will no longer resemble the lovely drop you want to drink.

Whilst I only ever cook with wine that I wouldn’t drink – it seems such a waste to do otherwise- you can, if your budget allows, cook with whatever you fancy. What I don’t want to happen is for you to lose a glass of something wonderful to the pot, simply because of an old saying.