What's the difference between "cooking wine" and regular wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

So-called "cooking wines" have a nasty reputation, and I've actually never heard a single good thing about them. But other than the fact that they're unpopular, I know nothing about them. What should I know?

—Jerry, Minneapolis, Minn.

Dear Jerry,

We talk a lot about “drinking wine” here, but there is a product called “cooking wine” which starts with wine made from grapes and/or grape concentrate, with added salt and preservatives like potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite to give it a longer shelf life (yes, cooking wine comes with an expiration date, usually about a year). You can find it at grocery stores, usually near the vinegars and salad dressings, sometimes by the wine aisle.

Cooking wine is handy for people who don’t consume wine, but still want to use it when a recipe calls for it. Not only does wine add flavor to a dish, its acidity helps break down fats and other flavor components, which is why it’s so great to use as a deglazing tool.

But my cooking-with-wine advice is to not cook with wine you wouldn’t drink. The problem with cooking wine is not only is it unpleasant to drink, it is salty, and can add an unwanted salty or even metallic flavor to your dish if you’re not careful.

When confronted with heat, much of the alcohol in wine will burn off, leaving the wine’s core fruit flavors and acidity. I think the best wines for cooking are fruity and not dominated by oak. These days you can find plenty of affordable reds like Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache or whites like Sauvignon Blanc to cook with that would also be fun to drink. If you’re not a fan of drinking wine, you can store an open bottle of wine in a fridge for a week, maybe more, before it loses its flavors. Or consider some box wine options, which—especially when stored in a refrigerator—could last a month or so once opened. My last tip? Freeze leftover wine in ice cube trays for future cooking endeavors.

—Dr. Vinny

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