Friday, February 13, 2009

On the misconceptions of cooking with wine

The following is one man’s opinion on cooking with wine. And considering that I don’t often cook, this opinion might not hold much water. The idea to post this gibberish owes its genesis to 8 years of collective inquiries from my customers at Suburban about how to choose a wine to cook with.

My favorite requests to fill involve wines for cooking specific dishes. The true “foodies” amongst you are adventurous and often take my advice on wine type and style, even when the selection costs a few bucks more than you had expected. This brings to mind the deeper issue…….just how much should one spend on a cooking wine? My answer is almost always “not a lot”. But then again, you should not spend too little, either. The following should guide you in making the distinction for your self:

-First, stay away from any wine or wine section labeled “cooking wine”. This is your first indication that the quality of the juice is substandard, and not worthy of your discerning palates.

-Second, aside from including the right type of wine in your dish, you should always cook with wine that you would also consider for drinking. When trying to decide how much that should cost, consider the price and quality of the other ingredients in the dish. I doubt that any of you would be using poor, stale or tainted ingredients in your cooking, and the wine you include should be no exception. Spending as little as $5 or $6 on a bottle may be a mistake, as would be spending as much as $100.

-Finally, the better quality the wine, the potentially tastier your dish. But like everything else, this has its limits. I recall an article in Decanter Magazine a few years back wherein a columnist wrote about her experiment with using high-end wine in her cooking. She prepared several different dishes using mature first-growth Bordeaux. She concluded that her coq au vin was indeed the best she had ever prepared, but only by a subjective margin of 10%. So, does that justify spending 2,000% more on the wine? The lesson is: be sensible with your cooking wine choices, but avoid being chintzy.

Most of the wines I end up recommending for cooking cost between $15 and $25/bottle, with some exceptions in either direction. Essentially, what you’ll want is a wine that will match with, as well as enhance the flavors in your dish, rather than one that competes with your dish or stands out as an obvious component. For specific recommendations, I welcome your inquiries anytime, either in person, or by email at

As a footnote, after you have picked your poison, treat is as you would any other ingredient. What I’m getting at specifically is that you should always smell and taste a wine before cooking with it. You all have had that unpleasant experience of discovering your drinking wine is corked, oxidized or otherwise flawed. Your cooking wine may be one of those, and you wouldn’t want to ruin your beautiful dish by inadvertently pouring spoiled wine into it. –Michael Koehler-

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