Whatever its color, the wine must be clean and without harsh, aggressive taste. Very cheap table wine sometimes does not react well in cooking and it is better to use something of better quality, although this does not have to be a great wine.” So says the famous encyclopedia Gastronomic Larousse.
My mother, who spent most of her cooking years in Zimbabwe and used wine in many dishes, may not have followed this advice, as anyone who has tasted Zimbabwean wine will understand. Her options were limited, but her food was always delicious. This brings us to a question that has divided chefs, cooks and wine lovers since time immemorial: which wines should you use for cooking?
French chef Marie-Antoine Carême codified the four “mother sauces” in the early 19th century, but it was Auguste Escoffier who introduced the “daughter sauces” a century later and made wine a structural element of classical cooking . But cooking with wine as an ingredient (as opposed to the all-important cooking with a glass of wine on the side, which is a vital part of preparing almost any meal) is a much older tradition. De Re Coquinariaone of the earliest known cookbooks, probably compiled by a Roman named Caelius Apicius in the fifth century AD, contained numerous recipes that called for wine.
Wine is a key ingredient in many centuries-old, rustic and refined recipes, especially in Europe. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, moules marinière, oeufs en meurette, cacciatore, chorizo al vino tinto. . . the list is long and includes the Mediterranean. Like stock, wine adds flavor. Like vinegar or citrus, it adds acidity. It can also add sweetness. Marinates, macerates and adds spicy sprinkles at the end. It is used to boil, stew, stew, steam and blanche. Reduced, or used to deglaze, it becomes a defining component of sauces, juices and glazes.
I was commissioned to update the “Cooking with Wine” entry in the upcoming fifth edition of the The Oxford Wine Companion. I was surprised to discover how little scientific research there is on this topic. My findings revealed many conflicting “rules”. Cook with cheap wine. Cook with good wine. Cook with the remaining wine. Never cook with leftover wine. Cook with tannic wine. Cook with tannin-free wine. Cook with fruit wine. Cook with dry wine. Cook with red wine. Do not cook with red wine. Cook with wine you like to drink. Cook with wine you don’t want to drink. Almost every piece of advice has its opposite. Choose your myth and support it.
I set out to do some empirical research, although this is a generous description of the unstructured, unscientific kitchen chaos that ensued. If I had learned anything by the end of it, except that you don’t undertake an exercise like this without a full team of kitchen gatekeepers, it was that proper scientific experimental evidence would be expensive, require much more planning and would require more equipment than a home kitchen could support.
I scribbled a scrap plan (if you must know, I used the back of a customs bill attached to a box of wine samples) that includes all the different wine styles and quality levels advocated by the various experts. The first stoppage turned out to be cost. Although I had bought all the vinous variables at the cheapest local supermarket, my grand plan was starting to push a budget of over £500, and that was without food.
The second problem was the large range of vinous variables to be investigated. Did I really want to taste several dozen versions of mussels, or turbot baked in different types of sparkling wine? The outages were piling up at an alarming rate. The task I would set myself, I realized, must be carried out in laboratory conditions with a large team.
I didn’t have the luxury of either, but my elderly parents enlisted as willing cooks. Their energy and their devotion to their middle daughter’s crazy schemes are strictly limited, but they had no choice but to plow on. Give me enough wine and I will plow.
To keep the application as broad as possible, including taking into account the interests of vegetarian and vegan diets, I decided to cook a very simple basic dish of dairy-free mushrooms and onions and finish it with different wines. In a perfect world, one would consider the variables of different ingredients, as well as the impact of adding wine at different times during the cooking process, heating it to different temperatures, and cooking it for different lengths of time. . This can be the work of a lifetime. I had a Saturday.
We cooked like crazy. I made the mistake on the spot; I advanced my team, lined up the ingredients, set up Top gun soundtrack and, with military precision, we chopped and chopped, fried and stirred, measured, reduced and muttered the relentless noise of the fan. Different from Top gun, the galley looked nothing like the regular surgical landing strip of an aircraft carrier by the time we were done. A paintball fight in a mushroom soup factory might have been closer to reality. How is it possible to get sauce on the ceiling beams?
Work done, we lined up the small plates. We tested the recipe with a number of wines, from cheap to expensive, fruity to oaky, low to high acidity, dry to sweet. Considering the limitations of the exercise, the results were remarkably simple and clear. Acidity and sweetness had the greatest impact on the finished dish and, together, turned out to have the most profound and positive impact. Fruitiness, as opposed to sweetness, was the third contributing component.
Sweet, high-acid wines, such as medium-dry Riesling, and fortified, dry or sweet wines, such as Madeira, sherry, Marsala, and port, were the best wines to cook with. Dry wines, red or white, disappeared, sometimes leaving the dishes needing a little more acidity. They didn’t seem to add much depth of flavor, no matter how simple or complex they were.
The expensive wines made no more impact and added no more depth than the cheap wines. Tannic wines and oak wines left a bitterness in the aftertaste of the dishes. Fruit matters – wines with real fruit juice added more to the dish than wines that were more on the savory spectrum.
I haven’t tried cooking with a faulty wine, so I can’t support or disprove the theory that wine faults are exaggerated by cooking.
It is, of course, the most crude experiment and I call on the culinary institutes around the world to support it with a proper investment in scientific research in this field. But in the meantime, all I can say is that whatever you cook, you can’t go wrong with Madeira. It covers all the bases and if you don’t use it, it will last until the next time you need it. It also tastes delicious. In fact, you won’t have anything left for next time.
Great in glass and pan
Wines that make for both enjoyable drinking and successful cooking
Schloss Lieser, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2021 Mosel, £17
Abundant, bright fruit with wild acidity. Perfect in a creamy coq au Riesling.
Eugenio Collavini, T Friulano 2020 Collio, £17
Almonds and herbs, goes well with asparagus and in spring risotto with green asparagus.
Giant Steps, Pinot Noir 2021 Yarra Valley, £21
Full of juicy goodness, add to thyme-stuffed lentils and bacon.
Marion, Borgo 2019 Valpolicella, £13
Supple, fruity and juicy, dip generously into spaghetti alla puttanesca.
Barbeito, 5 Year NW Madeira Rainwater Reserve, £16
The taste of apricot jam and bitter orange. Grease the pan in which you fried the venison and make a velvety sauce.
Barbadillo, Solear Manzanilla NV Sherry, £12
Lightly smoky, nutty and delicious. Made for mushroom soup.
Harveys, Signature Cream Sherry 12 year old, £15 per half
Candied shell, nutty, medium sweet. Use a whole bottle on slow-cooked lamb shoulder.
Taylor’s, Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015, £17
For peixe Oporto (roasted fish in a rich sauce)
Tasting notes on the purple pages of JancisRobinson.com. More shareholders from Wine-searcher.com
Tamlyn Currin is sustainability editor and staff writer at JancisRobinson.com. Jancis Robinson returns next week. More columns in ft.com/jancis-robinson
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