We’ve been doing a lot of wine tastings lately, and people have asked questions about cooking with wine. Since many of us will be cooking a lot over the next month, I thought I’d share some of the discussions I’ve had and things I’ve learned about wine in cooking.
“How much should I spend on wine I’m going to cook with?” That’s the question most people have. We’ve all heard the maxim that you shouldn’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink. Well, if you only like drinking more expensive, full-bodied wines, does that mean you should be using those for cooking too?
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a piece by Julia Moskin, who tried making dishes with more and less expensive wines and concluded that it didn’t make much difference in the final product. Not that the dishes made with different wines tasted the same, but that all were at least reasonably good. Even with $2.99/bottle Trader Joe’s wine, although she wouldn’t have chosen it to drink.
It’s not really a surprise. Heating wine, either by itself, or with other ingredients, completely changes the taste. The more other ingredients in a dish, and the longer or more intensely the wine gets cooked in it, the less it’s going to matter what wine you started with — within reason. Here are some of the things that happen in cooking:
Tannins. The tannins in red wine, those compounds that make you pucker up a little when you open a bottle of red wine and drink it right away, give some red wines the ability to improve with age. Chemically, though, their function in your food is binding to proteins. So if you’re cooking the wine with butter, meat, or meat stock, you’ve got a great source of protein for the tannins. Bound to the proteins they won’t be as bitter or astringent. In some cases, the tannins and proteins will make a foam or scum on top of the liquid, which most recipes tell you to skim off. (It’s ugly and usually doesn’t taste good.) The tannins also soften up during long cooking because of heat and exposure to air. So a big Malbec and a medium-bodied Côtes du Rhône red will both end up smoothed out after cooking for a few hours in beef stew.
Acidity. Most of the time, the acidity of foods decreases as they cook because the acids evaporate out. You’ve probably found that if you add lemon juice or vinegar to a dish and taste it right away, you’ll notice the acidity. But if you cook it for a half hour or so, it doesn’t seem nearly so acidic. This is why most recipes recommend you add a little splash of lemon or vinegar to some foods right before you serve them, to restore the acidity and balance out some of the other flavors in the dish. So cooking with an acidic Sauvignon Blanc versus a more mellow Chardonnay won’t necessarily make a difference in the acidity level of a dish after it has cooked for a while.
Flavors. Wine is mostly water and alcohol by volume. Both of these are flavor carriers. So when you drink a glass of wine, the water and alcohol are delivering the flavors into your warm mouth, where the flavor compounds evaporate and allow you to “taste” them. This is why wine tastes differently than it smells — when you smell wine you’re smelling the flavor compounds that evaporate at whatever temperature the wine happens to be at when you’re drinking it. Your mouth is warmer, so the wine warms up and different compounds evaporate in there to give you different flavors.
Heating up the wine on the stove means even more evaporation of flavor compounds. Particularly when you’re heating it up to the point where the wine boils and then simmering it for a long time. After cooking a while, most of the flavor compounds that make a beautifully-aged Bordeaux such a wonderful drinking experience are gone. This isn’t to say that the flavors that are left aren’t important, but they’re not likely to be the ones that would distinguish a great wine from an average one.
So what should you make of all this? The adage of not cooking with a wine you wouldn’t drink is still a good one. First, because you’re probably not going to use the whole bottle in most dishes and, second, you’ll want something to drink while you’re cooking (not to mention with the meal). That means most of the time you won’t purposely buy a bottle of El Cheapo just to cook with. Here are some guidelines I like to follow:
1) While I enjoy drinking wines aged in oak, I don’t usually cook with them if the wine is a major ingredient or it’s going to cook for a long time. Everyone perceives flavors differently, but I find that if I simmer wine aged in oak a long time, there’s a slight unpleasant aftertaste that I don’t get with wines aged in steel or concrete. Since I have usually paid a lot of money for the ingredients in my beef stew, I can do without that aftertaste. One advantage is that unoaked wines usually cost less than wines aged in oak (assuming the oaky-ness doesn’t come from adding wood chips, in which case you don’t want to tell me about it).
2) If there’s not much wine in the dish and it doesn’t cook for long (say 15 minutes or less) and you’re opening a really nice bottle anyway, go ahead and use that wine in the food. You can really impress your friends by telling them that the sauce is made with a superb wine because they’re worth it.
3) On the other hand, if the wine’s not a major ingredient and it’s going to cook for more than 15 minutes, it’s OK to use leftover wine from the fridge as long as the wine hasn’t spoiled. You might not want to drink that week-old leftover wine because it would be kind of flat and dull, but the compounds that are missing from the leftover wine are compounds that would cook out pretty quickly anyway. You might find you need to add a little lemon juice for a bit of acidity, but otherwise it should be fine.
4) If the base of your dish is wine or a mixture of wine and stock and the dish isn’t going to cook for more than 45 minutes to an hour, try pre-cooking the wine and stock together before adding them to the rest of the dish. This is a good tip for things like Coq au Vin, chicken in red wine. Today’s supermarket chickens don’t need more than 45 minutes of simmering, but that’s not enough time to soften up the whole bottle of red wine that most recipes call for. So simmering the wine and stock for 20 – 30 minutes first will help make it taste like you cooked for hours without drying out the chicken.
5) If you’re cooking a dish with wine for a while, consider adding a splash of “fresh” wine at the end. This is a trick I learned from watching Jacques Pépin on TV. It adds a little brightness of flavor that I really like. You can either add it directly, or mixed with cornstarch if you’re going to thicken the dish.
As you can see, it’s pretty much wide open in choosing a wine to cook with and you won’t go too far wrong no matter what you do (again, within reason). That gives us all one less thing to worry about for the holidays. A very precious thing indeed.
I did a rough count of the number of recipes Dare and I have put out on this blog and in the newsletter we sent before we started blogging. About two hundred of them. And I noticed that most of the non-dessert recipes have meat in them.
So this week’s recipe is a fish and seafood stew with white beans. Of course it has wine in it too. Most fish and seafood don’t have to cook for very long, and the short cooking wouldn’t be enough time to mellow out the white wine. So as I mentioned above, I like to cook the wine and vegetable stock together for about a half hour before adding other ingredients. This gives everything a nice flavor. You can get almost everything else prepped while the wine/stock mixture is bubbling away, so it really doesn’t take long to get this dish together.
The seafood you use is up to you. I like to use a firm white fish like pollock, halibut, striped bass or grouper. If you’re going to use something more delicate, cut it into larger pieces and don’t stir it around too much or it will fall apart. The mussels and clams are usually available fresh year-round, which is why I’ve recommended them. For wine, I like to use a good Côtes du Rhône white, like the one from Cave la Vinsobraise ($12). You can serve the same wine with the stew, or try the Cave la Romaine Viognier ($16) if you want something a little more elegant.
Bon Appetit, and Happy Holidays!
1 750 ml bottle dry white wine
3 cups vegetable stock
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
2 large onions, cut into large dice
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1-1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 15-ounce can small-dice tomatoes in juice
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (you can use 3 cans if you’d like it really thick and stew-ey)
2 pounds firm white fish, cut into 1-inch pieces
18 mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
18 small clams, scrubbed
Optional topping: 1 cup panko bread crumbs mixed with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt, browned in a non-stick skillet until the crumbs are golden.
Measure out 3 tablespoons of the wine and set it aside. Combine the remaining wine and vegetable stock in a saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and boil the mixture for 30 minutes. There should be about 4 cups of liquid left.
In the meantime, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the onions and carrots along with some salt and pepper and saute until the vegetables are soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Mix in the tomato paste, turn up the heat a little, and cook for two minutes or so. You’ll see the tomato paste darken in color. Add the thyme and the tomatoes and their juice and simmer for 5 minutes.
By this time the wine/stock mixture should have cooked for its half hour. Add the mixture to the Dutch oven, along with the beans. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and simmer uncoverd for 15 minutes. Using a potato masher, mash up some of the beans to make the base a bit thicker if you like (this is optional). Taste again for salt and pepper. It’s OK if it’s a little under-salted because the mussels and clams will add a little salt water when they open.
Gently stir the fish into the stew and arrange the mussels and clams on top and pour the reserved 3 tablespoons of wine over everything. Put the lid on and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook for about 3 minutes, then check to see if the seafood is opening. Give it a couple of additional minutes to cook if necessary, then discard any mussels and clams that haven’t opened.
Serve the stew in large bowls with 3 clams and 3 mussels on top of each portion. Sprinkle on the browned bread crumbs if you’re using them. Drizzle a little more olive oil on top of each serving. Pass the lemon wedges.