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harvey steiman at large

Cooking With Wine, Soaking Chickens

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 21, 2007 9:39am ET

The august New York Times splashed a big story over its food pages this week, the big news being that you shouldn't use a great wine in cooking.

What a surprise.

The writer, Julia Moskin, seems to have deliberately set out to misunderstand the oft-repeated advice to "use a wine you would drink." She took that to mean a wine she liked, so she compared an oaky Chardonnay with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a California tawny Port with one from Portugal.

Actually, the idea is much less subtle. Basically, it's this: Cook with a simple wine that has no major flaws.

Here's why:

When you apply heat to wine, it burns off the subtleties that make a great wine great. The alcohol mostly volatilizes, to the point where you can't taste it any more if you cook the wine for more than a minute or two. Any subtleties, like the teeny amounts of aromatic esters that make a wine complex, will be gone.

What's left is the basic structure and dominant flavors. If the wine tastes primarily of cherries, you might get a hint of cherry flavor in the dish, depending on what else is in the pot. If the wine tastes excessively earthy, gamy, metallic or (heaven forfend) corky, that's what you get, so don't think you can salvage that corky bottle by cooking with it.

But mainly, you get whatever sweetness, acidity and tannins are there. If the wine is sweet, it's just like adding sugar to the recipe. Acidity is the main reason we use wine in a dish. It perks up flavors in the same way that a squeeze of lemon might. Good cooks know that this changes the balance of a dish, and make sure there is some sweetness to compensate, either in the form of onions and carrots or with the simple addition of a sprinkle of sugar. (My thanks to Madeleine Kamman for this invaluable piece of sage advice.)

You also get to keep all the tannins, which leads to the one useful admonition in the article. Because tannins remain in the finished dish, if you don't want the burr of that texture on your palate, don't use a tannic wine in cooking.

Tannic wines are good for marinating, however. When I was tasting regularly with Jim Laube, we knew that instinctively. One of his favorite catch phrases, applied to mediocre wines, often too tannic, that had no other major flaws, was, "Well, you can always soak a chicken in it."

Brad Kanipe
Atlanta —  March 21, 2007 10:19am ET
"You can always soak a chicken in it", nice. I'm going to have to remember that line. Unfortunately it applies to many of the wines my friends tend to drink.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  March 21, 2007 12:28pm ET
A couple other hints for your readers when cooking with wine. For the most part, raw wine tastes awful in a dish. To properly tame it, you either need to simmer it for an extended period of time or reduce it till its nearly dry. When making sauces, I will choose to either simmer (as you would with a coq au vin) or reduce it. If you don't your sauce will have a "winey" taste. However, if you are using a fortified wine, you may want to add a few drops at the very end as these wines have a tendency to become tasteless after they come to a boil. A few drops of madeira, sherry, or port can bring their unique flavors to the finished sauce in a very pleasant way. And being that these wines are short on acidity, I prefer not to use them as the backbone of a sauce. Also, keep the idea of color in mind. The darker, more full bodied a wine is, the darker the finshed dish's color will be. Bigger is not always better. Dan J
Charles J Stanton
Eugene, OR —  March 21, 2007 12:35pm ET
I'm amazed that people need to be told not to use the grand cru in the stew. As an amateur winemaker, I have years of "almost but not quite good enough" pinot vintages that make great bases for wine sauces, coq au vin, salmon marinades,etc. My advice is to befriend a winemaker and use the stuff that doesn't quite make the cut, but is still potable and varietal.
Rob Lentini
Alexandria, Virginia —  March 22, 2007 4:34pm ET
You shouldn't use a great wine for cooking, but without another dry white on hand, I did use a little of a 2000 Gravner Ribolla Gialla for a dish recently. At least I knew it was wrong and was ashamed while I deglazed.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 22, 2007 4:47pm ET
If you're just using a splash of wine to deglaze the pan, by all means use some of the wine you're going to drink with the dish. You may not taste all of the nuances, but something subliminal happens to tie the food and wine together, always a good thing.

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