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Cooking with wine

For many of you, the title of this article refers to what you do while cooking for your family at home—wooden spoon in one hand, wine glass in the other. However, here we’re talking about using wine as an ingredient in professional cooking. All of us who graduated from the CIA cooked with wine at one point or another, making traditional sauces (beurre blanc) and braises (boeuf Bourgignon) in which wine was a major ingredient. Other than the fact that these preparations tasted pretty darned good, you probably never thought about why—why use wine when there are all sorts of other liquids available, including water? Well, there are (at least) two aspects to the use of wine in cooking, and their details will unfold below. Simply put, though, the main reasons are flavor and/or cooking chemistry.

It’s About Flavor

It could be argued that everything you do is for flavor anyway, but sometimes the wine is an ingredient only for its flavor profile and what it will add to the dish. As CIA Professor Corky Clark says, “The answer is in the final product.” Sometimes, that answer is wine. So without being highfalutin about “aromas of crushed violets and pickle juice” or any such thing, let’s go over the basic flavors present in most wines.

SOUR. Grapes have a range of acids in them, mostly tartaric and malic. Of course, a wine that goes through malolactic fermentation will also have lactic acid, but that’s not too important here. What is important is the way that acidity in wine can help to “brighten” up the flavor of a dish. Just think about squeezing a lemon wedge onto fried calamari and you’ll understand. When you reduce either the wine or the sauce it’s in by boiling or simmering, you will be concentrating the sourness as well, so be mindful of how far you bring a sauce down after adding the wine. It might become unpleasantly sour. 

SWEET. Wine starts out as grape juice, and grape juice is sweet as well as sour. Although “dry” wine is supposed to have no sugar in it, all wines have some residual sugar because some sugars are not fermentable. So, most wine has at least 1 gram of sugar per liter, which reads as 1 g/l. Most people won’t notice sweetness until the sugar level goes above 2 to 3 g/l, and truly sweet dessert wines usually have more than 40 g/l of residual (as in, leftover after fermentation) sugar.

So the sweetness of Marsala, which also happens to be fortified with alcohol, is one of its preferred qualities in the making of veal or chicken Marsala. The nutty sweetness from the wine is expected as part of the flavor profile. That said, most dishes that include wine assume the use of a dry wine in the hope that the acidity and aromatics will balance and enhance the richness and other flavors in the food. To this end, you should always try to use cooking wine that has very low residual sugar because as you reduce a sauce, the sugar becomes more concentrated. 

AROMATICS. Whether using white or red wine, there are thousands of different smells that they might have. White wines tend toward the aromas of citrus, apples and tropical fruit; red wines often smell like red fruits such as cherries, plums and strawberries. These smells are very important when judging the wine on its own, but not as much when cooking with it. Frankly, the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish can—even should—dominate and the wine should merely accent, enhance or balance those flavors. Sure, boeuf Bourgignon is named for Burgundy, but it’s a beef dish after all. 

With this in mind, it bears mentioning that the wine needs to be of a good enough quality that you would drink it. I do not, however, believe that you have to use the same quality as the wine that’s going to be served with the dish. In fact, if you poured a bottle of Clos Vougeot into the stew pot, I would start weeping quietly. But, you should still use a decent bottle of Bourgogne Rouge, maybe even from the same producer that the expensive Burgundy is from.   

Chemistry: Acid and Protein Ceviche

That’s what you’re thinking. Acid “cooks” protein. Well, yes, acid can denature proteins and give it a “cooked” appearance and texture. This doesn’t only happen with fish, because you know what the raw sauerbraten or beef for Bourgignon looks like after it has marinated in the wine for a day or two. What this means is that you can depend on the acid in the wine to either turn your scallops into an appetizer or create a velvety surface on the beef you’re going to braise. It also means, though, that you should not use a lot of acid in marinade for more delicate proteins—or you should at least be aware of what will happen if you do and adjust the length of time spent in the marinade. Acid also can affect egg foams by limiting the amount of protein coagulation that will take place and can help retain a glossy and smooth texture rather than allowing any graininess. Thank you, Harold McGee.

Finally, wine is an important ingredient in melted cheese dishes such as fondue. Most simply, the water in the wine helps to keep the fondue loose enough that it won’t bind up into a “ropy” texture. But chemically, the tartaric acid is bonding with calcium from the casein proteins, thus taking out the “glue” that would otherwise allow the protein to tighten up into rubbery strands. Oh, and it also tastes good because the brightness of the acid accents the richness of the cheese. Thanks again, Harold. 

The last bit of chemistry to cover is perhaps to keep something unpleasant (flavor-wise) from happening. One of the requisite “ingredients” in red wine is tannin. It is actually a family of highly complex phenolic compounds that are astringent—that make your mouth feel dry because they bind with the proteins in your saliva. These tannins have been used for thousands of years to tan leather, hence the name. They’re in more plants than just grapes, but are an important component in red wine. Now, if you just reduce red wine into a sauce, the tannins will become more concentrated and even less pleasant than they were to begin with. There are two ways to mitigate this. One is to choose a red wine with less tannin at the outset, like a Pinot Noir or Gamay. Or (and this is where it gets tricky), you can include some form of protein in the sauce or dish, and the tannins will bind to that protein before it gets into your mouth. This is why milk makes strong tea less astringent—the tannins bind with the milk proteins. A little ground meat, or egg, or the chuck roast in the pot will keep the tannins busy. So use the power of chemistry for good rather than evil.

Now that you know how and why wine should and can be used in cooking, here’s an unusual recipe (left) that uses wine as an important ingredient. It is printed with the permission of Waldy Malouf ’74, who is the chef-owner of Beacon Restaurant in New York City. This is a dessert that he cooked and served at The Hudson River Club, where I worked with him in the late 1980s. It is also included in his The Hudson River Valley Cookbook as a component in another dessert. 

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