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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have heard that wine will never be perishable even when it has been open for a long time. Even when it is no longer drinkable, it can be used as vinegar in cooking—is that true?
—David W., Shanghai, China
It’s true that if you open a bottle of wine and just let it sit there, it’ll never go bad in the same way milk would go bad, but it’ll taste bad. An open wine will become oxidized: the fruit flavors will fade, the color will turn brown, and it’ll take on nutty notes. Eventually it might turn into vinegar, though only under specific circumstances (and in my experience, with the help of a vinegar “mother”).
But I discourage you from cooking with it. Though it may (or may not) turn into vinegar, old and oxidized wine is not the same thing as vinegar. You’d be better off substituting another acid—say, lemon juice. And if a recipe calls for using actual wine, the alcohol evaporates during the cooking process, and all that’s left is the essence of the wine’s flavors. For that reason, I suggesting using fruity wines to cook with, not old and no-longer-fruity wines.
I’ll confess that sometimes, when I want to deglaze a pan while I’m cooking, I’ll find a leftover bottle in the fridge, and I might use a splash or two. After all, one of the reasons to use wine in cooking is because the alcohol helps dissolve some flavor compounds that water alone cannot. But I never do that with a wine that’s more than a few days old.
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