The rich and buttery smell of the batter never gave up the big secret: the cake my dad spent all afternoon baking was actually loaded with booze. So much rum, in fact, that taking a slice would have resulted in a tipsy seven-year-old — or at least that’s what Mom thought. Only the adults would get to indulge in the deliciousness of the sweet-smelling, alcohol-filled rum cake. Sorry kids!
Pours of Captain Morgan may tend to be a little heavy-handed in some rum cake recipes, but cooking with alcohol isn’t intended to get eaters drunk off food, and in most cases, it doesn’t. Instead, there are other benefits to cooking with alcohol, particularly wine. It can enhance the depth and flavor of a dish, or it can be used in a marinade or cooking liquid.
“One of my favorite things to do is to sear fresh scallops, reduce some dry white wine and lemon juice, and then add a tad of either heavy cream or coconut milk. That’s a simple, easy thing to do. You can add some shallots and garlic if you want to get fancy,” says Chef Sandy Sauter, owner of Spork Kitchens in Napa Valley and the vice president of culinary creation at Playte Kitchen, a virtual cooking class service.
There are a few things to keep in mind when cooking with wine, of course, and it starts with thinking about wine as an ingredient.
Wine as an ingredient
Wine is a delicious beverage all on its own, but when it comes to cooking, it should be treated in the same manner as salt, pepper, butter, and all the other components that bring a dish to life.
“Most of the time, what we’re looking for when we’re cooking is the balance of the five things you can detect on your tastebuds: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Wine can add a little bit of that acidity to help balance those five things. Depending on the style of wine, it can bring out the sweet characteristics of a dish and certainly some bitterness if using red wines,” says Sauter.
In some dishes, wine serves as a background characteristic, like when it’s used to deglaze a pan and pull up all the caramelized goodies at the bottom. The acidity of wine is unparalleled at getting every last bit of flavor out of the pan. In other dishes, it can work as an essential flavor.
“I recently did a dish where I poached a full head of cauliflower and then roasted it. I used wine in the poaching liquid to infuse the flavor. The liquid wasn’t going to be a sauce, but it infused the flavor into the cauliflower itself and gave it a great taste,” says Sauter.
What about the alcohol?
When it comes to cooking with wine, the amount of time and the amount of heat applied will slowly reduce the alcohol. Even so, there’s likely to be a small amount that remains, regardless if wine is splashed in a smoking hot pan while sautéing a piece of meat or cooked over low heat for several hours in a stew.
“It’s a common myth that all the alcohol in wine evaporates when cooking. In fact, only between 25% and 50% of the alcohol is lost,” says Tim Haslam, who, in addition to providing virtual wine education services, hosts food and wine events through his company The Vine Untangled.
There is a remedy for this if it’s a concern.
“Either carefully limit the amount of wine you use, or use boxed, de-alcoholized wine. It’s the sort of wine used by many restaurants for cooking. If you have any concerns about the level of potential alcohol in a dish, then this is the product to use,” Haslam says, adding, “However, for dishes where wine is an integral part, using certain wines will enhance the dish much more than the boxed wine.”
It’s important the style of the wine matches the style of the dish.
Cook with what you drink
There’s a time and place for box wine and wine labeled for cooking at the grocery store, especially if alcohol consumption is a concern. But when it comes to wine providing flavor to the dish, the experts say go for the good stuff.
“My golden rule is: never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. Bear in mind that, in this situation, you are adding an ingredient to your dish, and you wouldn’t use any other ingredient that was faulty or not to your taste,” says Haslam.
Though Sauter encourages people to use whatever they have access to, she notes cooking with grocery store bottles labeled as cooking wine and wine offerings usually placed near cooking oils and vinegar can impact how a dish tastes.
“I’m not throwing any shade on boxed wine whatsoever, but the flavor of the wine matters. If quality matters to you or you’re looking for a certain flavor, then you need to be a little more discerning. If you’re looking for just the acidity or body that adding wine is going to give a dish, then maybe quality is not as much of a concern,” Sauter says.
Another thing to be on the lookout for is the sodium level of cooking wines.
“Cooking wine that is labeled such at the grocery store generally has salt added to it and other types of preservatives. So the wine won’t only add acidity or flavor, it’ll also add salt to whatever’s cooked. People need to be aware so they don’t over-season the dish they’re making,” she says.
Have a splash of Merlot leftover from two days ago? Use it to make a beef stew or braise a rack of ribs. Using leftover wine is totally acceptable, although at-home cooks should be wary of cooking with wine that has gone bad, as cork taint tastes are likely to come through in the final product. An easy way to avoid cooking with corked wine is by smelling or taking a sip of the wine before using it. If it’s the right flavor, it’s good to go.
As for which wines to use when cooking, Sauter says they’re all fair game. However, she notes that it’s important the style of the wine matches the style of the dish. So use dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and unoaked Chardonnay for creamy dishes like risotto or recipes that call for a white wine sauce, and turn to light, less tannic red wines for heavy meats and red sauces. It’s also worth exploring wines like Marsala, Madeira, and Sherry for their potential in dishes. They can add just the right touch of sweetness and depth to a meal.
“All varieties of wine have different robustness or bodies to them, but using a wine that matches what you’re cooking works best. You wouldn’t want to make a light cucumber soup and add Syrah or something red and heavy like that to it, but maybe a splash of dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or something. It’s about matching that weight of the wine to the weight of the dish,” says Sauter.
Does price matter?
“If there are other robust flavors in any given dish, you may not see a great benefit from using an expensive wine,” says Haslam. “Conversely, if the flavor of the wine is too strong, it may overwhelm the other flavors in the dish.”
He adds, “As with all food and wine matching, think about the intensity of the dish and the dominant flavors, rather than getting too hung up about what specific wine to use.”
What’s most important is that people have fun in the kitchen and are open to exploring the wonders of wine beyond pouring it in a glass and drinking it. And certainly, don’t be afraid to use it to add flavor to a meal — though be mindful of how much wine is being used, so the kids won’t be left out of a good meal, like we were with Dad’s rum cake.