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The Complete Guide to the Best Wine for Cooking

The Complete Guide to the Best Wine for Cooking

It’s summer, which means that ice cream is on the menu–and a little cooking and creating with wine. From desserts to meat marinades to adding flavor to side dishes, your guide to your best tasting summer yet begins with the best wine for cooking.

Ice cream has long been a favorite summer treat, especially among Americans. This May, South Buffalo New York residents celebrated National Wine Day at the Abbott Ice Cream Stand, ice cream, and custard chain the debuted a location a year ago in the Buffalo region. While known for rich creamy custard flavors like chocolate almond and vanilla, perhaps the biggest draw was the wine ice cream flavors, available in lemon, strawberry, and raspberry.

Of course, adding wine to enhance desserts is nothing new. But when it comes to seemingly less glamorous cooking wine, outside of restaurants it can be quite underutilized.

Though wine for cooking may not seem as alluring as boozy ice cream, it can make all the difference in your summer dishes–and beyond.

Grace Simmons, the writer for the arts section of The California Aggie, recently returned home to a bottle of Chardonnay and poured herself a glass, hoping to relax and unwind. The problem? The bottle, which had been opened, likely wasn’t stored properly and had gone stale.

But instead of tossing the wine out, she decided to incorporate it in her chicken dinner. The result? Enhance flavor and zero waste.

What’s the difference between cooking wine and other wine?

While some think that wine for cooking and wine for drinking are two distinct categories, they actually aren’t. Technically, any wine can be used for cooking, and wine commonly used for cooking can be enjoyed as a drink.

Typically, cooking wine are more commercial, cheaper white or red wines and even some golden wines. While any wine can be technically used for cooking, certain wines are favored for cooking not only because they are cheaper and more widely available, but also because they tend to also have longer shelf lives, especially if stored properly in a wine cooler or on wine racks.

In general, drinking wine has more flavor, is less massed produced, and harder to find. While no one’s saying you can’t cook with the wine of your choice, it’s better to savor complex flavors for an actual glass of wine and save on the wine intended to instead enhance other flavors and develop as the food cooks.

Are there any other differences between regular wine and wine for cooking?

Another way to distinguish cooking wines from other wines is their composition. The reason why cooking wines tend to have longer shelf lives than other wines is that they tend to have a high alcohol content as well as even salt to help preserve them for longer.

In fact, because of this, cooking wines have a shelf life of up to sixteen months, and it’s less critical to store them carefully as it is for other wines. So while cooking wines are more convenient in some ways, you can also see why they are more prized for culinary than direct consumption.

The other problem with cooking wines? They tend to be very diluted and low on flavor. Many do not come from true vineyards.

What does cooking wine generally taste like?

As you’re probably aware, it’s impossible to say what cooking wine tastes like specifically without diving into the specific type or variety. That said, cooking wine, in general, tends to taste salty as compared with other wines. You may not notice individual flavor notes if you were to drink a glass of cooking wine. The good news is that extra sodium is actual to your benefit while cooking. While a saltier glass of wine may not sound good by face value, what you want to consider how it enhances flavors as food cooks.

Sodium in of itself is a critical ingredient to enhancing flavor in dishes. Salt makes everything taste better by lifting sweetness, mitigating bitter notes, and even preventing meats from drying out. The key to fine cooking is to balance the tastes we can perceive: bitter, sweet, sour, salt, and umami. Adding salt to a dish in moderation provides balance and enhances flavor.

However, there are some chefs and cooks who prefer alternatives to typical cooking wine and adding their own salt instead. In fact, while on paper cooking wine sounds like a good idea, most discount it as sub-par and not nearly as helpful in producing rich flavors as you cook.

Where do you buy wine for cooking?

You can purchase wine for cooking at a regular grocery store or through online retailers. Wine for cooking is actually easier to find than a signature wine from a specific region. With cooking wine, you’ll have a wide variety, but you also don’t need to be quite as particular in terms of flavor and aroma notes. Unlike when searching for the very best red wine, for instance, you’ll want to pay more attention to the flavor notes and wine variety in terms of what dishes they most complement.

Finding cooking wine, in general, isn’t difficult–finding the best wine for cooking can be if you don’t know what to look for.

Why is wine good for cooking?

Even without the extra sodium, wine is a smart choice for enhancing natural flavors while you cook. Wine helps to life flavors and balance others. At its best, wine can be used in cooking for the following:

  • Marinade: A marinade helps develop deeper flavors over time, usually a few hours or more, mostly more meats. Marinating before you bake or grill helps the wine’s flavors fully saturate the meat and will produce a more powerful and complex flavor as it grills or bakes. That’s because the alcohol itself mostly evaporates as it heats. What you want to happen are the sweeter flavor notes to thoroughly disperse through the meat. In order to prepare a wine marinade, you’re going to combine wine, some form of oils or fats such as butter or olive oil, and herbs and spices, such as paprika and cumin.  For larger pieces of meat, you might want to marinate overnight, while steak, chicken breasts, and pork chops you can get by with around two to three hours. Also, get rid of the marinade before cooking.
  • Finish: Normally when we’re discussing finish, we’re describing those lingering flavor notes that you get when you sip a glass. When it comes to cooking with wine, however, the finish is the final flavor you add to a dish either when it’s finished, or almost cooked completely. Just a dash of wine either directly over top or as a sauce can add a potent punch, especially if you’re pairing with meat and some sweeter elements.
  • Sauce.  A sauce, more commonly used than a finish, combines the idea of a marinade and a finish together and is typically simmered separately. Think of a wine sauce as any other condiment, like a steak sauce or quality gravy or mustard. Wine sauces add a signature and nuanced, often smooth texture to a dish. Popular wine sauces include a traditional red wine steak sauce, a wine cheese sauce over vegetables or to be served as fondue, and classic white wine sauces, which are especially popular for seafood and pasta dishes.
  • Moisturizer. One of the worst mistakes you can make when cooking meat or poultry is letting it get dry. Cooking at high temperatures makes meat especially prone to drying out, but it’s always important to add some sort of moisture. Citrus juice works, but so does wine; you can even pair the two.
  • Deglazing. Deglazing is a less commonly known term that refers to removing residue from pots and pans. You can use wine to clean off your pans completely and ensure that there isn’t any leftover pieces or flavors you don’t want in your dish.

Is there an alternative to typical cooking wine?

Yes. While cooking wine is cheap and handy, there are many that simply don’t like it, or its salty taste. Instead of splurging on fine wine, however, look to inexpensive alternatives that complement the flavors you’re cooking with.

You may want to steer away from typical cooking wine if you don’t like the taste of it, you also want to shy away from cooking sherry, a form of sherry which has high sodium and sulfate levels. That isn’t to say that those aren’t inherently bad, but you’ll get about the same experience as you would with other cooking wines.

Look for box wine, or, bottles of wine for ten dollars and under. While they may not be the highest quality of wines, they will be less salty and likely contain fewer preservatives. Just keep in mind that if you do opt for a wine for cooking that is not explicitly labeled as cooking wine that it’ll have a shorter shelf life. Invest in a decent cooler and also consider how to store unopened bottles in a cool, damp place on wine racks.

Does another reason not to buy wine labeled as cooking wine? It has very little alcohol content. So if you want the best flavor possible, steer away from sherry and other ‘cooking wines’ and opt for regular but cheaper white or red wine.

Do you have any general tips for cooking with wine?

When directly cooking with wine, it’s important to remember that cooking is all about balance. When you add wine, you’re changing the flavor composition of the food or dish. Keep these tips in mind, no matter what wine you select for cooking:

  • The right proportions. While when you marinate you have used a decent amount of wine, finishing sauces and gravies require a finer touch. For soup, add about two tablespoons to one cup of broth. Sauces and gravies require about one to two tablespoons per cup, while heavier stews you can get by with about one-quarter of a cup for every pound.
  • Simmering concentrates flavors but reduces other characteristics, like tartness or acidity. Simmering is best suited for making a sauce; otherwise, try to avoid it if you want to full flavor profile of the wine.
  • Broth and cream are the perfect complements. While wine is helpful for cooking with, it typically needs an accompaniment. Both broth and cream are popular options.
  • Wine isn’t just for meat and dessert. In fact, wine is an excellent complement to vegetable-based dishes. Saute with less oil than you would normally and add some wine.

Don’t know which wine you should pair your favorite meal with?

So what factors should I consider when searching for wine for cooking?

When searching for wine for the cook, there is no one singular best choice. What you choose depends heavily on what you’re making and what general flavors you enjoy–but we’ll also throw in some general wine buying tips too for cheaper wines:

  1. Sweet or dry? Dry wine is a wine that has very little to no residual sugars; a semi-dry wine is somewhere in between. Typically, sweet wines are called dessert wines and are consumed along with lighter fare and sweeter dishes. The same principle goes more or less when you use wine for cooking. If you plan to use wine to enhance a dessert, opt for a sweet wine, while a dry wine is better suited for main dishes, especially meats. For sauces or marinades, you can get buy with a semi-dry wine if you prefer it to a dry wine.
  2. Red or white? Red and white wine is most commonly used for cooking, but what you choose doesn’t just hinge on a general preference for red or white wine. Red wine tends to be more robust in tannins and produces a sticker result, making it more suited for heavier or fattier cuts of meat. For leaner meats, but especially in dishes that are white or light colored, stick with white wine. Chicken and fish are perfect for white wine, not only because you don’t a red color to stain it, but because white wine tends to get a little less thick or sticky as it heats. For desserts, red wine goes beautifully with dark chocolate and darker berries or fruits. Some white wines may be more suited for pound cakes and lighter-hued fruit, like apples and pears.
  3. Price point. Don’t splurge on a wine you’ll use for cooking; there’s no need to. In fact, many restaurants use fairly cheap wine to enhance their dishes. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for a wine that’s around five to ten or twelve dollars a bottle.
  4. When selecting a variety, go for a classic and well-known. If you’re looking for a wine used for cooking, go with an established and popular kind of wine that is known to be a crowd pleaser and as an ‘everyday’ kind of wine. Not only will these be more affordable and easier to find, but they also have tried and true classic flavor notes.
    1. For Red Wines: Opt for Merlot, Cabernet, and Pinot Noir.
    2. For White Wines: Consider Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Prosecco.
    3. Sweeter Wines: Riesling, Semillon, and Muscat  (white) or Port and Lambrusco (red) are good options for finishing touches to desserts and sweeter dishes.
  5. But for finishing sauces or glazes, go a little outside of the box. If you’re using a wine not for cooking so much as a finishing glaze, especially for a dessert, that’s where you do want to spend a little more if you can. You’ll notice the difference in a way you wouldn’t in a heavier meat dish or stew.
  6. Select something you’d be willing to drink. This may seem like a silly tip, but it’s actually a very important one. While you probably won’t be drinking it directly, you still need to select a wine that you’d be willing to drink. Sample the wine or wine like it to get a feel for if you like the primary flavor notes and secondary aromas.
  7. Consider Madeira or Marsala if you’re looking for a wine that adds both fuller flavor and a touch of sweetness. These two wines are most popular for dishes that marry sweet and earthy notes, like mushrooms and chicken.
  8. If you’re cooking, go with a full-bodied wine. Another reason we’re suggesting the wines we are is that the best wines for cooking should have a medium to full body. For this reason, some Rosé may also be suitable.
  9. Avoid barrel-aged wines. If you’re looking for a signature wine, barrel or oak aged wines are often prized for their full, robust and complex flavors. The problem? They can overwhelm the dish you’re preparing.
  10. On another hand, be wary of light, fruity wines. Very light, fruity wines with few other flavor notes, such as earthy, may not fare well for cooking. Often, lighter flavor notes get lost during the cooking process. Very flowery wines also tend not to do as well.
  11. Select a wine that enhances the flavors of the dish you want to. Certain wines go better with certain types of dishes; one easy way to think of it is what main flavors you want to enhance in your dish.
    1. Chardonnay, which has a richer, smoother feel is best for cream based and cheese based sauces or dishes
    2. More acidic dishes, such as citrus-based or other acidic foods like onions, cruciferous vegetables, and even seafood are best cooked with wines that have their own acidic profiles, including Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
  12. Sparkling wines should be used for sorbets, but also some vinaigrettes. While sparkling white wines are not ideal for most cooking endeavors, sparkling white wines can add lift and bright notes to fresher fruit dishes like sorbets and also to sauces where you want tanginess to be the main flavor experience. In fact, the carbonation does evaporate once you start cooking, so you can use sparkling wines as you would regular wine.

Can you recommend any wines for cooking?

Now that we’ve given you a quick guide on how to find the best wine for cooking, let’s take a look at some options. All of the wines on this list are at fifteen dollars or under a bottle and are useful for a variety of different types of cooking. Here are a few we recommend, and why:

1.Mouton Cadet Blanc, 2017: This white wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and a touch of Muscadelle. Fruity flavors are blended with a more well-rounded profile for a wine that is full enough to hold up to cooking, but not overpowering. Smooth citrus notes and a touch of coriander make it an ideal blend of savory and sweeter, with a touch of acidity, great for cooking with chicken, fish, scallops, and making white sauces.

2017 Mouton Cadet Bordeaux Blanc | Vivino

White wine from Bordeaux · France

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2. Château Saint Michelle Riesling, 2016: Another wine suitable for cooking, this bottle comes from Washington and costs just ten dollars. The medium dry white wine blends apple flavor notes with more earthy minerals, making it a great pair especially for cheese sauces, other white sauces, and gravies, as well as a complement to earthy vegetables. It does come with a blend of stone fruit flavors as well, making it versatile; with the right combination, it could also be used for making some dessert glazes.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling 2016 |

Chateau Ste. Michelles' Columbia Valley Riesling is a blend of Riesling from throughout Washington’s Columbia Valley. Their goal is to craft a refreshing, flavorful, medium-dry Riesling vintage after vintage. The wine offers crisp apple aromas and flavors with subtle mineral notes. This is their “everyday Riesling” that is a pleasure to drink and easy to match with a variety of foods.

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3. 14 Hands Merlot, 2015. For red wine, consider this bottle. Its structured and layered flavors make it a natural pairing for darker meats and richer dishes, while blackberry, plum and cherry notes give a lift to any dish. Smooth and pleasing, this merlot provides flavor to a dish without trying to do too much. Plus, it’s well received by customers.

14 Hands Merlot | Vivino

Red wine from Columbia Valley · United States

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4. NV Cantine Florio Marsala Wine. This Marsala wine comes from Sicily, Italy and has a warm amber hue, with notes of caramel, candied fruit, maple syrup, and apricot. Since it’s a dry wine, it actually works quite well with richer or earthy sides, like mushrooms, but also pairs well with chicken.

Cantine Florio Marsala Fine Dry | Drizly

Dessert Wine /10% ABV / Sicily, Italy

Florio Marsala Secco is amber in color with a rich aroma of dried fruit. The wine is dry and full-flavored.

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5. Capodalso Sparkling Peach Moscato: Also from Italy, but at just fifteen dollars a bottle, this is a beautiful option for making desserts. Peaches, honeysuckle, and citrus provide a lift to vinaigrettes and a slew of desserts, including poached fruit, fruit jellies, and even layer cake.

Caposaldo Sparkling Peach |

Soft and elegant with lively bubbles, this sweet sparkling wine has intense aromas and flavors of freshly picked peaches, honeysuckle and citrus. Perfect on its own, or with light desserts such as pastries, sorbet or fresh fruit.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Does cooking with wine remove the alcohol?

The short answer is: Yes! By integrating wine to your recipe, and bringing it to 172°F, the alcohol in the wine will evaporate and became imperceptible in your food.

Question: Can toddlers eat food cooked in wine?

As the alcohol in the wine do evaporates in the cooking process, dishes with wine are perfectly safe for toddlers.

Question: Is it safe to eat food cooked with wine while pregnant?

The very small amount that can be left on a recipe with cooked wine in it, is safe during pregnancy and it doesn’t increase the risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or any harm to the baby.

Further read:

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The Best Sparkling Wine How to Find the Best Cabernet Sauvignon Best Wine for Cooking Best Merlot That You’ll Love!
The Best Sparkling Wine How to Find the Best Cabernet Sauvignon Best Wine for Cooking Best Merlot That You’ll Love!