Cooking with Wine: Do I Really Have to Do That?

Sarah McColl
Editor in Chief
December 11, 2013

There are certain labor-intensive recipe phrases that can make the most diligent cook roll her eyes. “Do I really have to do that?” we wonder.

This week’s question comes from Jamie S: "I want to know what the point of ‘cooking sherry’ is. I always leave it out of any recipes that require it.” 

All the experts we asked agreed you wouldn’t want to cook with anything you wouldn’t gladly drink. “The ‘cooking wines’ you find in grocery are not worth it,” said James Briscione, Chef Instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and Food Network’s first Chopped Champion. “They have half the flavor of the real thing and are loaded with sugar and salt, which could leave you dish tasting worse than if you had just left the wine out completely.” 

OK, so we’ll skip the grocery store cooking wines. But what about all the other alcohol that pops up in our cookbooks: a quarter cup of white wine in our pan sauce, Pernod in our mussels, rum in our cake, cognac for our steak au poivre. Sometimes it feels like you need a full bar just to cook dinner! Do we really have to have a stocked liquor cabinet just for a glug here and there? What’s the point?

"Alcohols are typically crafted to have a specific flavor," explained Briscione. "Whiskey or bourbon lend a subtle ‘oakiness’ and sweet touch to a dish. Wine lends acidity, vermouth a general ‘herb-y’ note and liqueurs like pastis or pernod add a hint of anise." When we cook with these alcohols, the flavors concentrate and condense (and the alcohol burns off), leaving another layer of flavor. 

"Liquors greatly improves the depth and dimensions of sauces and foods," Suzanne Pollack and Lee Manigault, of The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits, told us. “Wines used to braise tougher cuts of meat for hours add a richness to the base, that water and stock alone can’t achieve. Gravy and vermouth together are a sacred union no man should tear asunder. Cream sauces, creamed chicken, creamed shrimp, and she crab soup are all improved by adding sherry right before serving. The sherry adds a bright note that cuts through the creamy taste imparting an elegance to the dish.” 

In some recipes, only the real stuff will do. If you want the distinctive taste of penne with vodka saucebeef bourguignon, chicken Marsalabananas foster (or any dish that requires a little flambe action), you have to cook with the genuine article. But in lots of other instances, say when you’re making a simple pan sauce or think something rich needs a touch of brightness, there’s no need to drop 18 bucks on a bottle of something boozy. We’ve compiled a list below of some suggested substitutions. In most cases, a 1-for-1 swap won’t work. You’ll have to experiment, tempering sweet flavors like fruit juice with the acidity of vinegar or lemon or diluting intense flavors with broth or water. “As in all cooking, let taste dictate,” advises Briscione. “With a bit of creativity and good stock of juices, extracts and vinegars, you can approximate the flavor of nearly any alcohol.” 

For white wine: lemon juice, white wine vinegar, chicken stock 
For red wine: balsamic vinegar, grape juice, chicken or beef stock 
For sherry: sherry vinegar, lemon juice or zest 
For dark liquors like brandy, cognac and scotch: peach, pear or apricot juice 
For amaretto: almond extract 
For rum: vanilla extract 
For bourbon: apple juice 

What did we miss? What other substitutions for alcohol do you use in your cooking? 

If you do have a bottle laying around from, say, your Mad Men-themed cocktail party, try putting it to good use in your dinner. “Sometimes it’s just fun to cook with booze,” says Briscione. “What could sound better than a bourbon basted pork chop?”