Building a sauce with wine is a wonderful way to add acidity, body and flavor. Italian dishes with wine as an integral ingredient are aplenty — from risotto deglazed with white wine to Bolognese slow-cooked with red wine and stock. The challenge is knowing which wine is suited for what dish, and whether to deglaze, fortify or finish.
At its essence, wine is fermented grape juice. But its depth and complexity come from not only the grape varietal, but from climate and soil conditions as well as the wine-making process. Although some of these nuances are lost when cooked down, choosing the right wine brightens the profile and adds just the right flavor notes.
“Typically speaking, white wines go with white foods and red wines go with red foods — just like when you’re pairing wines to drink,” says Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. “Before choosing a wine to cook with, think about what you’re looking for. What kind of character do you want the wine to impart? White wines offer lighter fl avor and color while reds bring in deeper fl avor and beautiful color.”
Indeed, according to Cooking Light, if recipes call for dry white wine, consider an American Sauvignon Blanc, which is quite dry and offers a fresh, light, herbal tone. If a dish has bold or spicy flavors, add an aromatic white wine, such as Riesling or Gewurztraminer. If a recipe calls for a dry red wine, consider the dish’s heartiness. A slow-cooked braised dish featuring lamb or beef needs a big, juicy red, like a Zinfandel or Syrah. A lighter-style red, such as a Pinot Noir or Chianti, would better serve less intense dishes.
Koetke cautions against spending big bucks on wines used for cooking. “The quality of the wine is important, but you don’t need to buy the really expensive ones,” he says. “What you’re paying for with those high-end wines are the subtleties and complexities. You’ll lose those qualities in the cooking process. Instead, look for a white wine that has good fl avor and balance. Stay away from overly sweet wines. With reds, go for reds with a depth of color because you want that intensity in the sauce.”
Wines designed as cooking wines that generally lurk by the vinegars in the grocery aisles are not recommended. Sulfites, an ingredient in all wines used to preserve them until opened, are used with a heavier hand in less-expensive cooking wines. When reduced, the cooking wine adds thin notes with an overriding salty taste.
“When you’re cooking down sauces with wine, you’re concentrating the fl avors and the acid,” says Koetke, who, before his tenure at Kendall College, helmed renowned kitchens, such as Les Nomades in Chicago and Les Francais in Wheeling, Illinois. “The biggest component is the acidity from the wine. That acidic note is a critical ingredient. It helps produce balance on the palate. Without acid as part of the fl avor profi le, you can end up with dishes that are fl at and fl abby instead of vibrant.” But what about the alcohol in wine? According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 85 percent of the alcohol remains after wine is added to a boiling liquid and then removed from the heat.
But the longer the dish cooks, the more alcohol evaporates. If a food is baked or simmered for 15 minutes, 40 percent of the alcohol will remain. After one hour of baking or simmering, only 25 percent remains. That percentage drops down to 5 percent after 2.5 hours of cooking.
“You generally want to cook out alcohol from the dish,” says Koetke. “Having an alcoholic fl avor produces an unpleasant medicinal quality.” Fortified wines offer a different world of fl avors. Port, sherry, Madeira and Marsala are all wines that are fortified with alcohol, and each gives a unique dimension to a dish. “When you’re cooking with Marsala, for instance, cook it up front, so you reduce and concentrate those beautiful, nutty flavors,” says Koetke. “Right at the end of cooking, add a touch more Marsala. The raw wine brings a fresh, aromatic dimension to the dish.” ?
Classic Spaghetti Bolognese
Yields 4 servings
1 pound lean ground beef
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 celery ribs, finely diced
¾ cup carrots, finely diced
1 tablespoon tomato purée
16 ounces chopped tomatoes
¾ cup red wine
¾ cup beef bouillon
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried spaghetti
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
Fresh basil leaves for garnish
Brown the beef in a medium pan; drain the fat. Heat the oil in the same pan over moderate heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery and carrots; cook until the vegetables are softened. Add the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes, red wine, bay leaves and beef bouillon. Stir; simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves just before serving. Cook the pasta according to the pack instructions. Drain; serve with the Bolognese sauce. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and basil leaves.
Cooking with Alcohol Substitutions
Alcoholic Ingredient Substitution:
- Almond-flavored liqueur Almond extract
- Apple brandy Apple-juice concentrate
- Beer (light) White grape juice or ginger ale
- Beer (dark) Mushroom stock or beef stock
- Cherry brandy Cherry juice
- Red wine Red grape juice cut with red-wine vinegar
- Rum Pineapple juice
- Sherry Orange or pineapple juice
- Sparkling white wine Sparkling white-grape juice or ginger ale
- White wine White-grape juice cut with white-wine vinegar
Katie Ayoub is is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.