There are a few rules when cooking with wine. Never use cooking wine–there’s a reason it’s next to wine vinegar in the grocery store.  But cooking only with a wine you would drink is one rule to be broken. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to pour a Chateau Margaux into a casserole. Wine and food professionals say you should cook with a wine that is drinkable.

So what constitutes drinkable? Besides personal taste, a lot has to do with the dish. If wine is the focus, say coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon, opt for a good quality red.  But you may well ask why it matters if you’re braising the dish for hours.  While complex notes will fly into the ether with the alcohol, the essential character–dry or lush, fruity or full-bodied–will remain. 

While alcohol cooks off quickly (and it is important to do so), acids in the wine don’t. Steer away from tart wines and go for well-balanced, smoother notes. If your reduction still tastes acidic, add a little sugar. And less is better. Adding a lot of wine to a dish can result in a sauce more suitable as a paint stripper.

Quick and Easy Wine Sauce

Cooking with wine isn’t only a slow, simmering process.  If you are deglazing the pan– picking up the caramelized onion and juicy steak bits or pan drippings–a  splash of cheaper wine is fine. Whisk in a handful of herbs, a little butter or cream and voila!

Marinade and Vinaigrette

Mix wine with vinegar as a marinade and meat tenderizer for thin but tough cuts. An acidic reduction is great as a vinaigrette–use in equal proportion to oil in a salad dressing.

Red Wine

“Cooking short ribs at home I would go for something juicy, like a $12 or $15 bottle of merlot,” says Chef Andrew Richardson of CinCin Ristorante + Bar. “Slow cooking for about three hours will result in an aromatic combination of flavours. And to bring out more of the natural fruit flavours, marinate the ribs overnight, strain the wine and reduce by half before cooking.”

According to the editors of  Cook’s Illustrated magazine, Merlot makes a balanced sauce with an overcooked, jam-like flavour; Cabernet Sauvignon produces an astringent, woody bite that bullied other ingredients out of the way; and Beaujolais makes wimpy sauces. They concluded that fruity, medium-bodied wines with little oak influence are the best cooking candidates, and Cotes du Rhone is “stellar”.

White Wine

There’s only one rule to remember when cooking with dry white wine: Reduce by at least half.  Richardson prefers to cook fish with vermouth or a sauvignon blanc, and something with mineral notes rather than oak. You can cook with a sweeter white, but only if you want a sweet taste in the finished dish.

At CinCin, Richardson has the luxury of adhering to the rule, “What grows together, goes together”.  Wherever possible, he chooses wine from the region, such as Barolo with braised short ribs.

Fortified Wine

Sherry, Port and Marsala enhance many dishes. Sherry is great in stews and pairs well with game, and Port is perfect with kidneys and sweetbreads (if anyone’s still eating them). I love Marsala whipped into Zabaglione, and it’s also excellent in vegetarian dishes. If a sweet wine or Cognac is to be used unheated in dessert, for example, choose a better quality wine.

Leftover Wine

“At CinCin I might use wine opened by the sommelier last night, or something the wine rep brought by,” said Richardson. “An open bottle is typically drinkable for a few days and cook-able for about two weeks.” Even if leftover good wine is slightly oxidized, it is still great for cooking.

Try experimenting, such as Chardonnay with pork, Sauternes with salmon. And root vegetables braised with Riesling is a gourmet meal unto itself. In the end, it’s really about what you like. 

Tip: Pour wine into a saucepan and reduce it (boil it down) by one-half and taste it. If it tastes good, use it.  One cup will reduce to 1/4 cup in 10 minutes cooking time.

Most recipes call for a 1/4 – 1 cup, so it can share the same bottle you are drinking for dinner. And while you’re cooking.

Sausage and Saffron Risotto

Courtesy Ruffino Winery

The medium-bodied wine with mineral and herbal aromas compliments the sausage.

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup (60 mL) butter
2 Tbsp (30mL) Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 1/2 cups (1lb) Arborio rice
8oz  (250 g) pork sausage, casings removed and broken into pieces

1 cup (250 mL) Ruffino Lumina Pinot Grigio
8 cups (2 L) chicken stock

 1/2 cup (125 mL) grated Parmesan, plus more for garnish

1 tsp (5 mL) saffron threads, toasted for a few seconds and crumbled
Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions:
 Heat butter and olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and add the onions. Stir until softened. Add  sausage pieces and wine and reduce by half. Remove the sausage and wine and set aside. In the same pan, add rice and toast slightly. Add the wine and stir until reduced by half. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and reduce to simmer. Pour into rice mixture, a little at a time, until rice takes on the creamy texture of risotto. Just before completely cooked, stir in the Parmesan, sausage, saffron, and salt and pepper to taste. Top with Parmesan and serve.