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A Dash of Wine

Although celebrity chefs often add a dash (or more) of wine to enhance their dishes, most cooks in home kitchens are reluctant to use wine as an ingredient. Some do not realize that wine can add layers of flavor to a dish, while others are aware that wine ruins their culinary creations, if not properly used.


No matter the dish, the best wines for cooking are the same wines for drinking—quality wines. They don't have to be expensive, but should be in balance—not overly tannic, oaky, or acidic. Unfortunately when using wine, most cooks rely on cooking sherry or a wine they didn't want to drink, which have likely been in the pantry for far too long. Yet when wine is used in food, it becomes an ingredient whose level of freshness affects the final result.


The flavors of the wine should match the dish, complement the dish, or add a flavor the dish is lacking—but needs. Obvious matches are deep dark reds, such as Syrah and Cotes du Rhone for hearty stews. Adding Sauvignon Blanc to a salad dressing can enhance the salad's herbal flavor. And dessert wines such as Sauternes, Rieslings, or Sauvignon Blancs can be used in a maceration process to add sweetness and draw out juices from under-ripe fruit, such as melons, berries, and peaches.


Aromas of creamy soups are enhanced by finishing them with a good sherry. Chardonnay pumps up pasta by adding a buttery touch. Zinfandels add a raisiny flavor to a marinade. And Pinot Noir makes sauces that don't over power the meat's flavors and complements mushroom dishes.


Onions and salt don't marry well with wine as ingredients, and should be used sparingly. Due to the acidity of wine, food cooked with wine or marinated in wine should be prepared in non-reactive pans such as enamel—avoiding aluminum, cast iron, and steel pans that aren't stainless.


Although wines are not high in alcohol, the amount remaining after cooking depends on the cooking temperature (beginning to evaporate at 178 degrees) and how long the wine reduces. Readers will be provided percentages relative to cooking times. A chart by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that a long-simmering dish made with wine, such as a stew, that has cooked for two and one half hours still contains five percent of the alcohol. But whether the intent is to preserve or remove the alcohol, wine should be cooked slowly and never boiled, to maintain the wine's flavor.


Finally there is the consideration of what glass of wine to serve with a plate that includes wine. The most common approach is to serve the same wine with the dish—that's in the dish. Pairing the same bottle with the meal helps marry the flavors, and is also an economical way to use just one wine.


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