Friday, May 6, 2016

The cheapest, easiest, laziest way to cook with wine.

Okay, I know what I'm about to say sounds bad, and I'm the first one to advocate for drinking good wine and serving it correctly. But when it comes to cooking with wine, I just don't have the time (or the budget) to be a perfectionist. So I've developed some strategies to get the great flavors from cooking with wine without any of the hassle.

The general rule is to not cook with any wine that you wouldn't want to drink. You might open a single bottle to put into the dish you're cooking and to drink while you eat it. Or, if you're cooking with the leftovers from an open bottle from a few days ago, you'll want to make sure you preserved that bottle properly, using a vacuum or gas system and putting the wine in the fridge.

This approach is admittedly not that hard, but I have a few issues with it, because maybe I'm cheap and/or lazy. First, I'll spend about $15 on a bottle of wine to drink with dinner. I won't do it every day, and I'll spend more on special occasions. I'm reluctant to pour a $15-a-bottle wine into spaghetti sauce. If I spent the money and chose the wine, I want to drink it! And if I'm supposed to always cook with wine I would drink, then we have a problem.

Second, I cook dinner for my husband and myself 4 or 5 nights a week. This requires a lot of both planning and improvising. Sometimes I plan a meal and use a recipe; sometimes I make it up as I go along from whatever we happen to have in the house. Sometimes we're drinking wine with dinner, sometimes not. Figuring out which bottle of wine to cook with complicates things, not in an insurmountable way, but in an "I worked all day and need to cook something healthy and fast and I don't want to deal with one more thing" kind of way.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a couple of different types of wine on hand for cooking (red, white, etc.), without having to plan ahead, without having to worry about an open bottle spoiling, without cringing as you pour some of your yummy $15 bottle into the pan.

Here's how you do it!

1)  Buy fortified wine. It lasts a LONG time in the refrigerator, even if you don't mess with the vacuum sealing or gas preservation gadgets. It may oxidize a bit after a while, but who cares? Lots of fortified wine is oxidized on purpose anyway, and even if your particular fortified wine isn't supposed to be oxidized, you're just cooking with it. You'll get some extra nutty/caramel notes. It'll be fine.

I keep 3 bottles in my fridge at all times:  Marsala (a fortified red), Vermouth (a fortified white with citrus and herbal flavors - kind of like an extra strong Sauvignon Blanc), and Sherry (a fortified and often oxidized white). This will cover you in nearly any situation. If you don't want to deal with more than 1 bottle taking up residence in your fridge, get Sherry. It's amazingly versatile, and I wouldn't hesitate to throw it into a dish that called for either red or white wine. Marsala, Vermouth, and Sherry all come in drier and sweeter versions. Go for the drier types.

Fortified wines are higher in alcohol (that's how they last so long) and more strongly flavored. So if you're working from a recipe, you may want to back off on the quantity of wine called for, and replace some of it with another cooking liquid, like water or stock.

2)  Buy cheap. I spend less than $10 per bottle for these wines, and they last a long time. (The 3 pictured above, which currently live in my fridge, run from $6-$8 each.) You wouldn't want to drink them by the glass, but take a few sips just to get to know what you're dealing with. They should taste okay, maybe even nice!

What about box wine? There are several good, perfectly drinkable boxed wines available today, and they make great cooking wines because they're cheap and stay fresh for a long time. However, I don't use them this way, because I'd rather be drinking something more interesting (from the perspective of region or grape) or of better quality. If I kept boxed wine around only for cooking, it would take me forever to go through such a large quantity. It's as much a problem of cabinet space as anything else. If you keep box wine on hand to drink, by all means cook with it!

A few final caveats:

If you've had a open bottle in your fridge for a REALLY long time -- like many months -- give it a little taste before you use it. If it doesn't seem moldy, funky, vinegary, etc., go ahead and use it. These wines should have a long life in the fridge, but check on them every now and then before using them.

This approach is great for upping your game on weeknight dinners. But I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from planning a special meal, cooked and eaten with just the right wine, particularly if it's a recipe that really showcases the wine. That's a wonderful, delicious, rewarding way to spend an evening...just not one I can make happen every week...

For another contrarian voice on the "cook with wine you'd want to drink" rule, check out this great article from Serious Eats:  "Should You Really Only Cook With Wine You'd Drink? The Truth About Cooking With Wine."

And you may also be interested in:
How to Cook with Leftover Wine
How Much Alcohol Cooks Off?
Boxed Wine? Really?

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