Cooking up a storm with wine
I vividly recall the first time I tasted food that had been cooked in wine.
I had recently joined a wine company as an accountant and was developing an interest in the winemaking process. A fellow workmate, who knew much more about wine than I did, invited me to his home for dinner. When we arrived, we were handed a glass of a wonderful French white burgundy. It was Drouhin Clos des Mouches. I knew enough about wine to know it was a chardonnay. Our host explained that “Clos des Mouches” translates to “field of flies”. Despite its unflattering name, the wine was delicious. It was quite simply the best wine I had ever tasted, crisp and dry with the gentle scent of salt sea air and a seductively silken texture.
I was horrified when the host poured the sensational wine into a cup, which he then dumped into a pan full of plump scallops. The scallops were poached in the wine and served. We savoured the wine as we ate the scallops. The salt sea tang in the wine was echoed by the flavours in the dish. It was a light-bulb moment.
Like most wine critics I have a great selection of cooking wines on tap. When my daily tasting (maximum of 24 bottles) is over, I keep the best bottles for myself while the rest are gifted to the needy and deserving. A local pensioner/wine lover is the recipient of the lion’s share. He distributes to others who can no longer afford to buy decent bottles on a regular basis. I would imagine that he is something of a hero in the eyes of his mates.
I’ve just emptied a generous amount of an NZD $120 pinot noir into a pot of slow-cooked lamb shanks that I plan to serve for dinner tonight. Perhaps I should have chosen a more robust red, possibly a syrah or Bordeaux blend, I have plenty of both. My choice was influenced by the fact that I wanted to drink pinot noir and would like an echo of the wine in the dish that will accompany it.
I only cook with wine that I would happily drink. That makes sense. When you reduce a wine in pan you concentrated its flavours both good and bad. Yes, I know that some volatile components will be lost when the wine is reduced. Alcohol, for example, boils off into the atmosphere so you can cook with wine and still have an alcohol-free day. Alcohol does take time to dissipate. If you add a wine with 14% alcohol to a sauce before reducing that sauce, it will still have 5-6% alcohol after 15 minutes. Better make that an alcohol free-ish day.
I’m a keen amateur cook, not a seasoned professional. Here are a few guidelines that I apply when cooking with wine.
Consider the three benefits that wine brings to cooking:
- Wine is a marinade that can enrich and tenderise meat, fish and vegetables.
- Wine is a cooking liquid.
- Wine adds flavour.
Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat, fish and vegetables
The guidelines for cooking with wine match the guidelines that we’ve all used when choosing a wine to match a certain food. It’s not exactly rocket science, but if you are not risk adverse and like to experiment it can be fun breaking a rule or two.
If you have a choice of wines to cook with you might like to match choose wines with similar flavours to those in the dish. For example, I often use Marlborough sauvignon blanc to flavour vegetable dishes because the wine often has a pronounced vegetal, grassy, capsicum character that snuggles in nicely with the flavours in vegetable dishes.
Dry versus sweet
If a dish needs a little sweetness you can add it by choosing a sweet wine. Conversely, if you don’t want to make alter sweetness in the dish cook with a wine that has a similar amount of sweetness.
The same principle applies to acidity. Choose an acidic wine (riesling, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc) to boost acidity in the dish and a low acid wine (pinot gris, gewürztraminer) to have the reverse affect. If you think a dish might be improved by a squeeze of lemon juice, consider using a high acid wine instead.