Cooking with Wine: 2 Things You Need to Know
For many of you, “cooking with wine” may mean holding a wooden spoon in one hand and a wine glass in the other. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass while you cook, I’d like to propose reserving a little for your recipes. Water and stock work fine most of the time, but certain recipes just wouldn’t be the same without the addition of wine. If you’ve ever sampled savory Boeuf Bourgignon or velvety sabayon, you know what I mean.
#1—It’s All About Flavor
It could be argued that everything you do in preparing a recipe is for flavor anyway, but sometimes the wine is an ingredient used only for its flavor profile and what it will add to the dish. So let’s go over the basic flavors present in most wines and how they affect food.
Grapes have a range of acids in them—mostly tartaric and malic—and it’s this acidity in wine that can help to “brighten” up the flavor of a dish. Just think about squeezing a lemon wedge onto fried calamari and you’ll understand. When you reduce either the wine or the sauce it’s in by boiling or simmering, you will be concentrating the sourness as well, so be mindful of how far you reduce a sauce after adding the wine. It can easily become unpleasantly sour.
Wine starts out as grape juice, and grape juice is sweet as well as sour. Although “dry” wine is supposed to have no sugar in it, all wines have some residual sugar because some sugars are not fermentable. So, most wine has at least 1 gram of sugar per liter, which reads as 1 g/l. Most people won’t notice sweetness until the sugar level goes above 2–3 g/l, and truly sweet dessert wines usually have more than 40 g/l of residual sugar.
Most dishes that use wine assume the use of a dry wine in the hope that the acidity and aromatics will balance and enhance the richness and other flavors in the food. To this end, you should always try to use cooking wine that has very low residual sugar because as you reduce a sauce, the sugar becomes more concentrated. A lot of the inexpensive jug and bag-in-a-box wines made in the U.S. have high residual sugar. As you reduce these wines, you might even end up with something resembling caramel—not a balanced sauce—so choose your cooking wines wisely.
Whether you use white or red wine, there are thousands of different smells that they might have. White wines tend toward the aromas of citrus, apples, and tropical fruit. Red wines often smell like red fruits such as cherries, plums, and strawberries. These smells are very important when judging the wine on its own, but not as much when cooking with it. Frankly, the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish can—even should—dominate and the wine should merely accent, enhance, or balance those flavors.
With this in mind, it bears mentioning that the wine you cook with needs to be of a good-enough quality that you would drink it. I do not, however, believe that you have to use the same quality as the wine that’s going to be served with the dish. In fact, if you poured a bottle of Clos Vougeot into the stew pot, I would start weeping quietly. But, you should still use a decent bottle of Bourgogne Rouge, maybe even from the same producer as the expensive Burgundy you’re serving with the dish.
#2. Chemistry Matters
Let’s touch on just one of many ways chemistry affects cooking with wine. One of the requisite “ingredients” in red wine is tannin. It is actually a family of highly complex phenolic compounds that are astringent—that make your mouth feel dry because they bind with the proteins in your saliva. These tannins are in more plants than just grapes, but are an important component in red wine.
Now, if you just reduce red wine into a sauce, the tannins will become more concentrated and even less pleasant than they were to begin with. There are two ways to mitigate this:
- One is to choose a red wine with less tannin at the outset, like a Pinot Noir or Gamay.
- The other (and this is where it gets tricky) is including some form of protein in the sauce or dish so that the tannins will bind to that protein before it gets into your mouth. This is why milk makes strong tea less astringent—the tannins bind with the milk proteins. A little ground meat, or egg, or the chuck roast in the pot will keep the tannins busy.
So use the power of chemistry for good rather than evil. And enjoy cooking with wine!
John Fischer is an associate professor in hospitality and service management at the CIA and a 1988 graduate of the college. He is the author of At Your Service and Cheese: Identification, Classification, and Utilization; and co-author of Bistros and Brasseries.
Cabernet-braised Short Ribs with Chard and Orecchiette
This hearty dish gets its robust flavor from caramelized meat, tomato paste, and concentrated red wine. Most of the preparation can be done in advance, making it ideal for entertaining.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
6 meaty short ribs (about 4 pounds)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups chopped onions
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 celery stalk (about 4 ounces), trimmed and cut into ¼-inch dice
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
One 750 ml bottle Cabernet Sauvignon
1 bay leaf
6 fresh parsley stems
4 fresh thyme sprigs
2 pieces orange zest, each about 2 inches long by ½ inch wide
1 to 2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
Orecchiette and Chard
1 pound dried orecchiette
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 pounds Swiss chard (ribs removed, cut into ¼-inch slices, rinsed, and drained)
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for topping
For the short ribs: Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Trim fat from the ribs, leaving a small amount for flavor. Season with salt and pepper.
In a 5-quart stockpot or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add 3 of the short ribs and sear on all sides until brown, 4 to 5 minutes per side. If there is a lot of exposed meat on the ends, sear for about 2 minutes per end. Remove ribs from the pot and place on a plate. Repeat with remaining ribs. Reserve until needed.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion, carrot, and celery, scraping up any browned pieces of meat from the bottom of the pan. Sauté, stirring often, until the vegetables are lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and sauté until it begins to caramelize, 1 to 2 minutes. Raise heat to high and deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping the bottom of the pot as needed. Reduce heat to medium-high and cook until the wine has reduced by half, 12 to 15 minutes.
Add the bay leaf, parsley, thyme, and orange zest. Return ribs to the pot. Add enough chicken stock to bring the liquid halfway up the ribs. Bring stock to a boil, place a piece of parchment paper over the pot, cover tightly, and place in the oven. Cook for 2 to 21⁄2 hours, or until the meat falls off the bone. Remove ribs and set aside. When cool enough to handle, shred the meat into bite-size pieces, discarding any visible fat or gristle. Keep warm until needed.
Strain the Cabernet sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids. Degrease sauce by skimming the fat off with a large spoon. Place sauce in a pan over medium-high heat and cook until reduced to a light consistency, 4 to 5 minutes. Keep warm on low heat.
For the orecchiette and chard: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the orecchiette and cook until al dente, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large soup pot, warm the olive oil for 1 minute over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until lightly colored, 6 to 8 minutes. Add chard, toss to coat with the oil, and sauté until softened, about 6 minutes. Ladle a cup of the pasta cooking water over the chard and continue to sauté until most of the liquid evaporates, about 4 minutes.
Drain pasta and add chard mixture. Pour half of the sauce over the pasta and chard and toss to coat. Stir in the cheese and divide pasta among large bowls. Warm the shredded meat in the remaining sauce. Spoon the meat sauce over the pasta and serve with additional grated cheese.
Source: The CIA cookbook Seasons in the Wine Country
Wine is an important ingredient in melted cheese dishes such as fondue. Cheese has a tendency to seize up or get stringy at varying temperatures. But the acidity of the wine helps to keep the cheese smooth. The saltiness of the Gruyère also helps. If you sense that the cheese is getting too “ropy,” you can save the day either with a splash of wine or a squeeze of lemon juice—just don’t add more salt because the cheese is salty enough.
Makes 4 servings
1 garlic clove
1 pound grated Gruyère
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 2/3 cups dry white wine
¼ cup Kirsch
Ground white pepper, as needed
Freshly grated nutmeg, as needed
1 baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 apples, cored and cut into 1-inch cubes
Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the inside of the fondue pot with the cut sides of the garlic. Turn the heat to medium under the pot.
Toss the grated cheese with the cornstarch and set aside; reserve for later use. Discard the garlic.
Add the wine to the fondue pot, turn heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer. Add the cheese, a handful at a time, waiting for the previous bit to have melted. Stir in a figure-eight pattern rather than in a circle to avoid roping.
When all the cheese has been incorporated, add the Kirsch, white pepper, and a few gratings of nutmeg.
Serve with the bread and apple cubes, keeping the fondue steaming, but not boiling.
Chef’s Note: In addition to bread cubes, other items good for dipping into the fondue include cooked and peeled baby, new, or fingerling potatoes; broccoli and cauliflower florets, cooked al dente; and whole cherry or grape tomatoes.
Source: The CIA’s Cheese: Identification, Classification, and Utilization