Cooking with Wine: tips on how to successfully cook with wine - I Blame The Wine
Cooking with wine: red wine jus, white wine sauce, red wine risotto

Cooking with Wine: tips on how to successfully cook with wine

What is cooking with wine about?

“I cook with wine,” the great American comedian W.C.Fields once quipped, “sometimes I even add it to the food.” As you start to stress about what to feed family and friends this Christmas, never was a truer line more pertinent.

Wine has been used in cooking, as well as being imbibed directly, since the Ancient Romans started making wine and the great Roman epicurian, Marcus Gavius Apicius, wrote the oldest cookbook to survive from antiquity, De Re Coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”)

What wine can bring to food

Apicius and every foodie throughout history to the present day recognises the close relationship between food and wine; all recognize that wine compliments food, not merely as a stand alone accompaniment, but as an active, added ingredient in many dishes.

Flavour: when you add wine to a dish you are adding 3 principle components found in any bottle of wine, namely sugar, acid and tannin. The subtleties in a wine disappear in the cooking process but these 3 base elements will shine through on the plate.

A wine’s acidity is a great way to add flavour to a recipe, without adding fat. The acidity also adds brightness to a meat during tenderizing.

Tenderise: the acidity in wine not only adds flavour, it acts as a tenderising agent on the outer surface of the meat.

Less tender cuts of meat have higher percentages of collagen, a connective tissue that binds together the muscle fibres in meat; wine, combined with a gentle heat, converts the collagen into gelatin form that in turn helps to soften the meat.

This must be a slow, gentle cook: a fast cook at high temperature not only boils away the alcohol, it toughens the meat still further, the exact opposite result to what you want.

Moisten: whether cooking in the oven, on the stove using a frying pan or in a slow cooker wine can add moisture to a dish and prevent the dish from drying out. This can be right at the start, in the marinade, or during the cooking process itself.

De-glaze: alcohol is a great way of rescuing all those carbonated juices that lie encrusted on the base of a pan and recycling them back into the dish.

How to use wine in food

There are few rules when cooking with wine and anyway rules are there to be broken. That’s fine if you are a confident, experienced cook – the recipe is in your head and ‘winging it’ is fine.

However, if you have just got married and this is your first Christmas when everyone is coming to you, the prospect can terrify. For ordinary mortals, there is no harm in having a few guidelines.

Balance: using wine in cooking to add flavour is all about balance; add a little wine to a dish and you subtly enhance, you draw out the flavours; add too much and you kill those very same flavours.

Timing: the secret to successfully using wine in cooking and impressing mother-in-law is to add the wine right at the beginning, to let the alcohol slowly reduce and gently integrate the flavours with the dish. Never add wine at the end: the wine has no time to reduce and the palate is assaulted with a nasty, thin taste.

Check the ingredients: many recipes that use wine could also use lemon or vinegar. All are high in acid and all need to be used sparingly, otherwise your family at lunch on Christmas Day will be complaining of heart burn.

Complement: it makes sense to fit the wine to the dish. An off-dry Sauvignon Blanc from Australia or California, higher in natural sugars and with a little more body than its European counterpart, will nicely complement those carrots and onions, rich in natural sugars, that are already nestling in the pan.

On the other hand you might finally snap this Christmas, say ‘to heck with turkey’ and opt for fish instead. In that case a crisp, unoaked dry white with good acidity and an alcohol content between 10 and 13% is perfect. Reliable Old World examples include Muscadet from the Loire or Pinot Grigio from Italy’s Alto Adige. They are fairly neutral wines (not to dominate delicate fish flavours).

Keep the best for the dinner table: there is no point in cooking with the finest Puligny Montrachet that cost a small fortune; the subtle nuances and exquisite flavours will have evaporated into history during the cooking process and you might as well have burned those crisp pound notes.

Add another dimension: if you want a wine for cooking that is extremely versatile and really awakens the tastebuds the much derided, misunderstood sherry is the answer; whether you are deglazing a pan or want to add depth to a soup, a bone dry, salty Manzanilla or a dry but nutty amontillado will provide the answer.

Wines best avoided in cooking

Oaky heavyweights: there is nothing wrong with using Chardonnay in cooking as long as it is unoaked but avoid those oaky Chardonnays, indeed any wine aged in wood, that can easily overpower the dish and your guests.

Tannic reds: a light to medium red wine, be it a Valpolicella or Italian or French Merlot, can be a very effective tool in any cook’s armoury.

However, the big, tannic bruisers of the wine world, especially those Australian Cabernet Sauvignons and South African Shiraz (Syrah) are best avoided altogether. As the red wine reduces with cooking, the tannins in the wine also reduce and the resultant concentrate can be unpleasantly astringent.

Wines high in alcohol not only tend to be tannic, they also take longer to reduce and many lack the necessary degree of acidity for tenderising meat.

Sweet wines should be used almost exclusively for puddings. Pears poached in wine is heavenly; give your ham the same treatment and the liquid tends to caramelize during the glazing process or impart an unwarranted sweetness.

Cooking wines: never, ever cook with so called cooking wines if you value your reputation as a good cook and don’t want to upset your foodie friends. These have been adulterated with salt and other food additives that can easily cause havoc with the flavours.

The golden rule: always choose a wine to cook with that you would drink on its own. If its cheap and nasty on the palate, the same poor quality will resurface in the finished dish. It doesn’t need to be a choice from a premium price bracket, but not the cheapest plonk you can find either!

Cooking with wine: red wine jus, white wine sauce, red wine risotto

Wine or spirit sauces

Ever since the fifth century B.C, when the Ancient Romans and Greeks livened up their food with a pungent condiment known as Garum or liquamen, a fermented fish sauce made from a variety of small fish including anchovies and red mullet, sauces have been part of a cook’s culinary armoury.

Until refrigeration revolutionised food storage and longevity these sauces were invariably a means of disguising the pungency of meat and fish that was not, shall we say, as fresh as it might be.

In France it was the celebrated chef, Escoffier who, in 1902, transformed the humble sauce into what it is today: a versatile primer that enhances and ties in a range of flavours across a broad range of dishes.

Their ingredients, composition and preparation vary according to the culture, cuisine and point in history. Nearly all have a few key ingredients that form what Escoffier termed the mother sauces. These include onion, celery, butter, if you are French-inclined, or olive oil, if Italy calls you, cream and herbs. For a more intense, spicier flavour emulate the professionals and try shallots.

All sauces have secondary flavours that comprise, to use a thespian analogy, the support cast. One member of this cast is alcohol: it should remain anonymous, quietly supportive and never outshine the main star, be that meat or fish.

Light sauce: if you want to make a light sauce use white wine, rose or clear spirit. White wine sauce is so versatile!

Dark sauce: for a darker sauce, more pink in colour, use red wine or dark spirit. Red wine sauce is good accompaniment for your roasts, steaks, lamb and even chicken if you like your poultry to be rich and robust.

A leaf through any cookbook or search online will reveal dozens of recipes that include alcohol amongst the ingredients for a sauce. The following are two famous examples:

Sauce Nantua: a crayfish and bechamel sauce that has its origins in the Jura Mountains, that can be enlivened by a couple of tablespoons of Cognac.

Source Robert: attributed to a seventeenth century saucemaker, Robert Vinot, this sauce based on mustard and herbs, and fortified with white wine, makes an ideal accompaniment to pork chops.

Wine sauces should incorporate the natural juices

As you pull the roast turkey out of the oven, the bird will, unless you went off for a round of golf and completely forgot about it, be sitting in a pool of natural juices.

These natural juices, in French ‘jus’, form the basis of the simplest, often the tastiest, natural sauces. They can be frozen and whipped out of the freezer six months later or, at Christmas, used there and then.

Add some white wine to what nature provides, reduce the mix by at least half to create that concentrated, enticing white wine jus and your Christmas lunch will start to sing.

Red wine jus

Red wine jus: you may be one of those people for whom turkey has outstayed its welcome and a roast duck or a joint of beef has greater appeal. Use a good medium bodied red to create a delicious, tasty sauce.

The red you use does not need to be a tannic monster of 14% alcohol. As red wine reduces the tannins become more concentrated and the flavours correspondingly bitter. A good ordinary Claret of 13£ abv could be simply delicious in cooking.

To really get your family in the Christmas spirit, try adding a few tablespoons of a basic ruby port. As well as adding sumptious flavours to the jus, it will have the whole family singing at the dinner table or snoring contentedly in an armchair in the afternoon.

Red wine risotto

So what happens at Christmas if you are vegetarian, shunning meat altogether? Lunch with the family, if you are not in charge of the kitchen, can be awkward. Whether you are host or guest, there is no need to let your anxiety balloon into full-blown stress. Cooking with wine can help! Many cultures, Italy and Thailand being notable examples, have for centuries catered for the vegetarian as effortlessly as they have for the carnivore.

Your Christmas can hum over the dinner table just as much as that of your carnivorous fellow guests with the help of some red wine; not, in this instance, gently gleaming in the glass in front of you but as the added ingredient in a red wine risotto.

If you are being strictly classical you pour a liberal slug of Barolo into the mix but as anyone who has ever bought Barolo knows, even the humblest example will seriously dent your wallet.

The accountant in you resists and opts for the more affordable Valpolicella. Those of us not of Italian ancestry can quietly add whatever red wine we like to the vegetable stock, celery, onion and other ingredients. Once the optional dusting of Parmesan cheese has been added no one will be the wiser.

If you like your risotto in the Venetian style, al onda, or on the wave, you must let the risotto stand or it will become sticky.

Any leftovers can be reycled on Boxing Day as arancini, small balls of rice reheated in a frying pan.

As you glaze the ham and prepare the turkey, pause for a moment armed with a generous glass of wine and ponder the words of Andre Simon, the great French writer, who said “food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.

Enjoy cooking with wine and Happy Christmas everyone!

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