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May 6, 2010 03:46 PM

"Only cook with wine you'd drink." Really?

"Only cook with wine you'd drink."

This is, of course, one of those towering, carved-in-granite cliches of cooking advice. Taken at its most literal meaning, it is also a poor guideline, at least for me. But I'm wondering how others interpret it. And to what extent they [you] adhere to it. Is my palate just underdeveloped? Am I reading too much between the lines of this advice? Too little?

Part of the issue is that it's always a bit unclear what is really meant by this sage old wisdom. Possible interpretations:

1. 'Don't use cooking wine.'
- Okay, I'm on board here. Cooking wine doesn't taste good, it's as expensive as many cheap real wines, and it makes it harder to control the salt level in your dishes. Sometimes it seems like this is all the advice boils down to. But then wouldn't it be better to say 'Don't cook with cooking wine' instead?

Also - does this apply to mirin, which I can only get in a salted variety because I live in a tyrannical sobrocracy (commonwealth of PA)? It's OKish, and every once in a great while helps more than, say, sugar and sake would. Am I a bad cook/person?

2. 'Also... don't use any [real] wine that tastes godawful.'
- I'm down with this too. If uncle Jeb fermented it himself up in his bathtub and now it tastes like his feet and Irish Spring, then I can see how cooking with it would be a bad idea. This, to me is just basic cooking judgment - if it tastes like something is wrong with one of your ingredients, don't use it. Do we really need advice for this scenario?

3. 'Only cook with wine you'd drink' - literally.
- Wait, wait, wait - I don't even like marsala or sherry as drinks, but does that mean those delicious sauces I've made with them should never have happened? Or say you're a hard boiled/pickled wine snob/afficionado (I'm not, not that i have anything against wine lovers) who only drinks bottles costing upwards of $100 and starting with the word 'Chateau.' Is their food really only well served by sticking to the lofty and expensive wine they drink? Should my wife stick to cooking always with white wines, as she doesn't like drinking reds? Should 15-year-olds cook with wine coolers exclusively?

4. 'Whoa there, Keller - step away from the Yellowtail'
- I guess this is probably where the real debate comes in. I use Yellowtail as an example because it's pretty ubiquitous- hopefully most of you have tried it, but if you haven't suffice to say that it tastes pretty much like cheap wine. And I do drink it when served to me (though I usually don't start really enjoying it until about the 3rd glass). It always seemed to me that by the 'only cook with what you'd drink' line, some/many meant to say that using something like Yellowtail is bad for your food and should never be done. I haven't really found that to be true.

For starters, it seems to me that the cooking process flattens out more complex wines, especially when used in the presence of other strong flavors. In other words, the flavors of whatever you're cooking will completely overwhelm the subtleties in a nice bottle of wine, especially if wine isn't the most-used ingredient. So while a reduced wine sauce may benefit from going a step above the cheap stuff, a red sauce splashed with wine will not. Is this true for others, or is my undeveloped palate for wine just missing things? To be fair, I've found that when using cheap wines, you have to be a bit more careful and adjust for the acidity of your final dish. A BIT. That's not too bad or too hard to deal with.

Truth-be-told, it's just far more convenient and economical to keep a box of OKish cheap wine in my fridge (doesn't go stale anywhere near as fast as bottles) for regular use and splurge (a bit) for any meal that really calls for the wine to take the forefront. I like to think of my palate for most foods as pretty decent and I just haven't found the difference to be very significant.

I've rambled on enough. Other CHers?

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  1. I believe that your first, second and third axioms make sense and all go together. But I'll break it down.

    1. Yes, cooking wine is god awful, you might as well save the $ and use water. Does not apply to something like Mirin, however, that is usually specifically called for in a recipe. And tho I don't know anyone who actually drinks Mirin, I do know those who do drink rice wine.

    2. Yes, no brainer. Anything you cook with should appeal to you (taste good) in the first place.

    3. This really goes back to point number one, in which you should cook with a wine that is Drinkable. Doesn't have to be the $200 Chateau Neuf du Pape, no it's subtleties would get lost in the dish and go unappreciated. But even if you don't drink sherry, marsala or port, doesn't mean it's not a drinkable wine, and these fortified types of wines actually make sauces incredibly richer tasting. And geez, I really hope 15 y.o. aren't out drinking wine coolers, or cooking much, for that matter!

    4. I think some will find wines like Yellowtail to be fine, passable, even good. Not my taste, but if that's what's open and you are making a dish that needs to be deglazed then by all means, use it. Generally, it will not affect the final taste of the sauce, rather it is added for it's ease of deglazing the pan, and starting a sauce, not for its flavor.

    For me, I cook with wines that I drink. For the most part, tho, if it's a more expensive bottle, say upwards of $15, I save it for drinking only.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Phurstluv

      'This really goes back to point number one, in which you should cook with a wine that is Drinkable.'

      This is, I guess, my big question. What does 'drinkable' mean? Is it supposed to be entirely subjective? Is it supposed to exclude cheap, uninteresting, one-note wines? Or is it just supposed to mean 'no cooking wine or fermented weasel piss'?

      IMO, only the last option would really make for good catch-all cooking advice.

      1. re: cowboyardee

        I've always interpreted that saying as "don't cook with stuff you wouldn't drink". Most inexpensive wines only suffer from being a little one dimensional or fast finish. You don't need multidimensional, long finish wine when you're cooking (indeed, I would think that would be a waste of delicious wine). Those features won't carry through into your final dish.

        1. re: Indirect Heat

          Maybe that's the issue. I always got the impression from wine lovers that many would refuse to drink one-dimensional wines. Maybe they're not the ones offering the advice on cooking with wine.

          1. re: cowboyardee

            I don't think it means much more than ............ don't cook with wine you wouldn't LIKE as drinking wine. That should set a basic bottom line of taste for you.

            You can, of course, go beyond that to the specifics of what a particular wine would add to a particular food preparation (as per our exchange below), but I don't think the statement you began with necessarily has to go that far for most purposes.

    2. I would never cook with a $200 bottle of wine, but my pot roast tastes a lot better cooked with $20 wine than $7 wine.

      3 Replies
      1. re: pikawicca

        But it would be just as good with any number of, say, $10 wines. Even less sometimes.

        1. re: mcf

          I agree. The best $10 wines have held up just as well in my cooking experience as more expensive bottles, since in cooking, I always seem to lose the elements of complexity that make for better and typically-more-expensive bottles.

        2. re: pikawicca

          pikawicca, I'm curious if you've ever tested that out: <my pot roast tastes a lot better cooked with $20 wine than $7 wine>?

          or are you supposing? because I know that axiom doesn't work for me. Some $7 wines get really great results, and some $20 bottles not so much.

        3. A couple of observations on the topic;

          1. The palate preferences and taste sensitivity of people vary so widely that I wouldn't take the 'rule' too literally.

          2. When you cook with wine, you cook out the alcohol............. so what's left is mostly the fruit essence of the wine, not the overall taste of it before cooking.

          3. It doesn't make a whole lt of sense to use a $50 bottle of wine to make your dish unless you can really taste the difference and/or don't care about the cost. You can achieve what you need to at the lower end of your taste acceptance range.

          My take on the 'rule' is to use a wine that is of sufficient quality that it's reduction has a positive impact on the dish or sauce. I really think that means that if you'd drink the wine it's impact will not usually adversely affect the outcome of cooking with it. Point #2 can produce a variance to that.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Midlife

            'My take on the 'rule' is to use a wine that is of sufficient quality that it's reduction has a positive impact on the dish or sauce.'

            But where is that line for you? That's what I'm trying to get at. Because for me, I find that line is dependent on the dish I'm making, but also generally lower than what I consider to be a decent drinking wine. And I'm no wine connoisseur, so that's pretty inclusive.

          2. I'm with you about not using a complex, expensive wine with overpower ingredients..just a waste (for me anyway). I never buy/use 'cooking wine'..that's just nasty stuff for non-wine drinkers (and I'm no wine aficionado, to say the least!)...a robust red and a dry white is all I keep on hand for cooking..I'm sure wine connoisseurs will disagree with me...

            1. What about vermouth? That is recommended by many cooks as a substitute for white wine to deglaze pan, etc. Vermouth is not something I drink.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Bethcooks

                But it is used in many drinks, martinis, for example. Just because you don't drink it, doesn't mean the same for all.

                1. re: Phurstluv

                  Good point, Phurstluv. I meant vermouth is like sherry, marsala, port etc that we cook with but don't particularly think of as "drinkable" wine.