Cooking 101: Cooking with wine

May 18, 2011 at 12:00 p.m. ET

If you have more experience drinking wine than cooking with wine, raise a glass and toast to this Cooking 101 guide that will help you uncork your cooking potential.

Woman cooking with wine

Cooking with wine is something you may have thought only experienced chefs can accomplish. The complexities wrapped up in wine can be intimidating, but don't let that keep your cooking bottled up.

To start, keep things simple and follow the basics as you hone your skills. Just like most things, basic knowledge is key and practice makes perfect!

What type of wine to use?

You may have heard it before: only cook with wine you'd drink. This is true since the food you're cooking will pick up the flavors of the wine. Don't use the special or rare bottle you've been saving for a major celebration, though. Simply use a wine that you enjoy drinking and that is accessible.

Snaking through the grocery store aisles can be a chore, but avoid the temptation to pick up a bottle of "cooking wine" you see on the shelf -- just keep walking. Generally, cooking wine includes added salt and it isn't made for drinking. If you're cooking with quality wine and using appropriate seasonings, you won't need the added sodium the cooking wines offer.

Stick with the types of wines that will enhance, not overpower, the flavor of your food. For example, if you're making a light, buttery sauce for pasta, use a white, buttery wine. If you're making a heavy, meaty stew, use a bold, red wine.

Color Code Your Cuisine If you're making a light-colored dish, use white wine. If you're making a dark-colored dish, use red.

A toast to taste

There are generally three ways to use wine in your cooking: as an ingredient for a marinade, as a liquid to cook with, and as a way to add flavor to a finished dish.

  • Cook fish with wine to enhance its flavor (not cover it up), add moisture and not ruin its nutritional value with high-fat sauces or with frying. One way: Add the wine while the fish simmers. Try this recipe for Mahi mahi with herbed white wine sauce.
  • Wine makes a great ingredient for a marinade due to its acidity. It helps tenderize what you're cooking and also keeps your food (meat, poultry, fish) moist. Try this recipes for Flank steak marinade.
  • For sauces, reduce the wine first then add it to the other ingredients. Reducing the wine helps thicken a sauce. Deglazing refers to adding wine to a pan that has bits of food left on it; the wine will help loosen the food. You can then add more wine and some stock, reduce, and make a sauce. Try this recipe for Pot roast with tomato wine gravy.

Traditional formula for pairing wine with cooking

  • Young, full-bodied or earthy red wine -- red meat, soups with root vegetables, or beef stock
  • Young, full-bodied robust red wine -- red sauces
  • Dry white wine -- fish, shellfish, poultry, pork, veal, light or cream sauces
  • Crisp, dry white wine -- seafood soups
  • Sweet white wine -- sweet desserts
  • Sherry -- poultry or vegetable soups

Keep in mind that wine needs to simmer with the food you're cooking to enhance its flavor. Don't add it at the end of cooking or you'll risk serving a dish with a strong, overpowering flavor. The longer you cook the wine (over low to medium heat), the more subtle the flavors.

As with most seasonings, take the attitude of "you can always add more" rather than pouring it on full-force from the start. If your taste buds tell you to add more be sure to wait about 10 minutes after your first taste so the wine has time to be absorbed.

Eating food prepared with wine won't make you tipsy. Most of the alcohol in the wine evaporates during cooking, leaving you to savor the wine's flavor.

When cooking with wine it's generally best to follow the recipe, but as you experiment, you'll get a good sense of what tastes good. General suggested amounts of wine used in cooking include the following: 

  • Soup -- 2 tablespoons of wine per cup of soup
  • Sauces -- 1 tablespoon of wine per cup of sauce
  • Gravy -- 2 tablespoons of wine per cup of gravy
  • Stews and meats -- 1/4 cup of wine per pound of meat
  • Poaching liquid for fish -- 1/2 cup of wine per quart of liquid

We've all encountered a wine snob or two in our time, but don't let the attitude of others or fear of the unknown keep you from cooking with wine -- you might miss out on something really delicious!

More recipes with wine

Sautéed tomatoes in shallots & white wine
Quick beef bourguignon
Mussels in white wine sauce
Mediterranean red wine vegetable stock