- The cheap stuff is just fine.
- Beware wines with tannins, as they will affect the flavor of the dish.
- Don't use a sweet wine when the recipe calls for a dry wine.
It Boils Down to This: Cheap Wine Works Fine
IN the beginning, there was cooking wine.
And Americans cooked with it, and said it was good.
Then, out of the darkness, came a voice.
Said Julia Child: “If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”
And so we came to a new gospel: Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.
For my generation of home cooks, this line now has the unshakable ring of a commandment. It was the first thing out of the mouth of every expert I interviewed on the subject.
But it is not always helpful in the kitchen. For one thing, short of a wine that is spoiled by age, heat or a compromised cork, there are few that I categorically would not drink. (Although a cooking wine, which is spiked with salt and sometimes preservatives, has never touched my braising pot.)
And once a drinkable wine has been procured, trying to figure out whether it is the best one for a particular recipe can seem impossible. How much of the wine’s subtler qualities will linger in the finished dish? How much of the fruit flavor? Does it matter whether the wine is old or young, inexpensive or pricey, tannic or soft?
Two weeks ago I set out to cook with some particularly unappealing wines and promised to taste the results with an open mind. Then I went to the other extreme, cooking with wines that I love (and that are not necessarily cheap) to see how they would hold up in the saucepan.
After cooking four dishes with at least three different wines, I can say that cooking is a great equalizer.
I whisked several beurre blancs — the classic white wine and butter emulsion — pouring in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc with a perfume of Club Med piña coladas, an overly sweet German riesling and a California chardonnay so oaky it tasted as if it had been aged in a box of No. 2 pencils.
Although the wines themselves were unpleasant, all the finished sauces tasted just the way they should have: of butter and shallots, with a gentle rasp of acidity from the wine to emphasize the richness. There were minor variations — the riesling version was slightly sweet — but all of them were much tastier than I had expected.
Next I braised duck legs in a nonvintage $5.99 tawny port that reminded me of long-abandoned Halloween candy, with hints of Skittles and off-brand caramels. Then I cooked a second batch of duck legs in a 20-year-old tawny port deliciously scented with walnuts, leather and honey. Again, the difference was barely discernible: both pots were dominated by the recipe’s other ingredients: dried cherries, black pepper, coriander seed and the duck itself.
Wincing a little, I boiled a 2003 premier cru Sauternes from Château Suduiraut (“The vineyard is right next door to Yquem,” the saleswoman assured me), then baked it into an egg-and-cream custard to see whether its delicate citrusy, floral notes would survive the onslaught. They did, but the custard I made with a $5.99 moscato from Paso Robles, Calif., was just as fragrant.
Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.
It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.
The final test was a three-way blind tasting of risotto al Barolo, the Piedmontese specialty in which rice is simmered until creamy and tender in Barolo and stock, then whipped with butter and parmigiano. Barolo, made entirely from the nebbiolo grape, is a legendary Italian wine; by law, it must be aged for at least three years to soften its aggressive tannins and to transform it into the smooth aristocrat that fetches top dollar on the international wine market.
I made the dish three times in one morning: first with a 2000 Barolo ($69.95), next with a 2005 dolcetto d’Alba ($22.95), and finally with a jack-of-all-wines, a Charles Shaw cabernet sauvignon affectionately known to Trader Joe’s shoppers as Two-Buck Chuck. (Introduced at $1.99, the price is up to $2.99 at the Manhattan store.)
Although the Barolo was rich and complex to drink, of the seven members of the Dining section staff who tasted the risottos, no one liked the Barolo-infused version best. “Least flavorful,” “sharp edges” and “sour,” they said.
The winner, by a vote of 4-to-3, was the Charles Shaw wine, which was the youngest and grapiest in the glass: the tasters said the wine’s fruit “stood up well to the cheese” and made the dish rounder. “It’s the best of both worlds,” one taster said, citing the astringency of the Barolo version and the overripe alcoholic perfume of the dolcetto. The young, fruity upstart beat the Old World classic by a mile.
“I’m not surprised,” said Molly Stevens, a cooking teacher in Vermont whose book “All About Braising” (W. W. Norton, 2005) called for wine in almost every recipe.
“If it had been short ribs, you probably wouldn’t have been able to taste the difference when the dish was done, because meat and wine work together differently,” she said.
This might explain how the chef Mario Batali got away with pouring an inexpensive California merlot into the beef with Barolo served at Babbo, as Bill Buford observed in “Heat” (Knopf, 2006), his account of his work at the restaurant.
In an e-mail message, Mr. Batali said he preferred to cook with Barolo when he would be drinking Barolo, saying that “the resulting comparison of the raw, uncooked wine and the muted, deeper and reduced flavor of the wine in the finished dish ... allows more of the entire spectrum of specific grape flavor, a dance on the ballroom of the diner’s palate.” (He did not dispute Mr. Buford’s assertion, however.)
Mark Ladner, the executive chef at Del Posto, Mr. Batali’s restaurant on the fringe of the meatpacking district, sees several hundred dollars’ worth of aged Barolo stirred into its version of the risotto, a signature dish, every week.
“My brain tells me it should matter,” he said, “but once a wine is cooked I’m not sure how much even a discerning palate can tell.
“When I make the dish at home, I use a dolcetto d’Alba — a simpler wine from the same region — and honestly I like it even better.”
The difference between Barolo and dolcetto does reveal one hard rule of cooking with wine: watch out for tannins. Found in grape skins and seeds, tannins are bitter-tasting plant compounds that can give red wine and tea some desirable tartness but become unpleasantly astringent when cooked. (Barolo, young Bordeaux and northern Rhônes are examples of very tannic wines.)
“I wouldn’t cook with Barolo even if I could afford it,” said Bob Millman, a longtime wine buyer for Morrell & Co. in Manhattan.
“Tannins are what get you into trouble in cooking,” Ms. Stevens said, because they are accentuated and concentrated by heat. “For reds, err soft,” she said, and choose a wine with a smooth finish.
Are there any other hard rules for choosing wine for cooking? One: don’t be afraid of cheap wine. In 1961, when Mrs. Child handed down her edict in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” decent wines at the very low end of the price scale were almost impossible to find in the United States.
Now, inexpensive wines flow from all over the world: a $6 bottle is often a pleasant surprise (though sometimes, still, unredeemable plonk).
“Often customers come in looking for an inexpensive wine to cook with, and when I steer them to our $5.99 and $6.99 Portuguese wines, which are perfectly good for most dishes, they are uncomfortable with it,” said Gregory dal Piaz, a salesman who specializes in wine and food pairings at Astor Wines and Spirits in SoHo. “They think it is just too cheap.”
At the other end of the price scale, the experts agree that it is wasteful, even outrageous, to cook with old, fine and expensive wines.
“Let’s take the most horrifying example, a Romanée-Conti, among the most subtle and aristocratic wines on the planet,” Mr. Millman said. “There is no way that its complexity and finesse will be expressed if you cook it, even for a minute. The essential flavors that make it a Romanée-Conti will be lost.”
Ms. Stevens said that she divides the vast and bewildering universe of wine into Tuesday night bottles and Saturday night bottles, and that she cheerfully cooks with whatever Tuesday wine happens to be open.
“I really resent opening a bottle just because a recipe calls for a quarter cup of something,” she said, “but the acidity of wine in cooking really is irreplaceable. You can’t just leave it out or sub in another liquid.”
Plain dry vermouth, she said, which lasts indefinitely, is her standby white for cooking. (This was also Mrs. Child’s solution. Red vermouth, however, cannot be used in recipes calling for red wine; it’s too sweet.)
Before these cooking sessions, I would have been suspicious of a recipe that casually called for “Sauternes or another dessert wine,” as Nigella Lawson’s custard recipe does. I still would not swap in a sugary ruby port for drier tawny, or pour Manischewitz into a coq au vin — sweet wines and dry should be kept in their places.
But beyond that, cooking with wine is just that — cooking — and wine is only one of the ingredients that give a finished dish its flavor. Aromatics, spices, herbs, sugar and especially meat and fat tend to erase the distinct flavors of wine.
Mr. Millman, the wine buyer, maintains that cooking with wines that have the same terroir as the food produces the best-tasting results, but Mr. Ladner, the chef, isn’t so sure.
“In my head,” he said, “it tastes better and I like it more, but I wouldn’t like to put it to the test. I like the romance of cooking with wines of the region. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”