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"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.

              2. Bottom line: only-cook-with-what-you'd drink shouldn't be taken literally but, as others have very well pointed out on this thread, the real criterion should be don't-cook-with-wine-you-wouldn't-drink. But even that has exceptions--I can't imagine drinking sweet Marsala, but can see it working as a sauce in some instances. As for using very high quality wines for cooking, well, apart from the budget issue, some would and some wouldn't work. My only experience cooking with a major wine is: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6778...

                1. I'm pretty ignorant about cooking with wine -- just admitting that up front.
                  But a few years ago I dated a guy who was in culinary school, and when I told him that I had bought a cheap bottle of wine that I hated (it was about a $6 bottle of wine, I think) he told me to keep it and use it for cooking.
                  I can definitely taste the difference between a cheap and a high-end wine while sipping, but I really don't think that, after mixing it with a bunch of other herbs and ingredients and simmering it for hours, I can determine the difference at all.
                  So, until the time that my palate -- or my finances -- improve drastically, I'm going to continue cooking with cheap-o wines that I don't care to drink. And I don't think I'll notice the difference.

                  1. Well, I'm certainly not a oenophile (hope I spelled that OK), but in our house I'm pretty much the only wine drinker and the only one likely to cook with wine, so if I'm going to use a wine to cook with, it's got to be something I might enjoy a glass later. Since I'm not trying to impress myself or anyone else, I can generally pick out an acceptable drinkable choice for $6-$10 (around here less than that will only get you Boones Farm and Gallo). They're not vintage, but they "do the job" in the kitchen. If I want to drink the good stuff, I go to my parents and let my Dad open something from his stock -- he knows what he's doing.

                    1. I think that axiom is obviously a bit too glib, if not a gross oversimplification.

                      I think a better axiom might be "cook with whatever wine (or alcohol) you feel comfortable with.".

                      I cook with Chinese cooking wine all the time. Couldn't make do withou it.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        'I think a better axiom might be "cook with whatever wine (or alcohol) you feel comfortable with."'

                        A better axiom, to be sure. But what to tell people who don't yet really feel comfortable with anything... meaning new, inexperienced cooks?

                        More importantly, what's Chinese cooking wine like? I have no experience with it at all.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          Chinese cooking wine or Shaoxing is generally wine made from rice (or sometimes wheat) that has added salt. Good for marinating meats, steaming seafood, and preboiling or parboiling bones for stock.

                      2. I wonder if this isn't just some way for the chef to make sure s/he has a little perk while working in the kitchen.

                        1. I think you misunderstand the rule of thumb... cook only with wine you could drink

                          There is no need to quibble over whether it is OK to cook with a varietal of wine or fortified wine that does not suit your personal taste. And I have never heard a trained chef caution home cooks against using inexpensive table wines or even jug wines for cooking.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Kater

                            I don't think I misunderstand anything. I just think it's misleading and imprecise advice, especially for anyone who would need advice about cooking with wine in the first place.

                            And I have heard many caution against using 'cheap' wines, as though cheapness was a flavor and not a price. After a 30 second google search, here a a couple links I found immediately with advice of this sort:

                            1. re: cowboyardee

                              You need to seek out much better sources than those, but neither is telling you to buy an expensive wine for cooking.

                          2. I don't have a hard-and-fast rule, but in general I use pretty much any wine in small amounts, while steering away from adding cups and cups of a thin wine that has a fast finish. I'm also cautious with anything oaky, as that seems to get accentuated in the cooking. Thick inky silky wines with a big round mouthfeel get added in volume, unless I'm thirsty. That said, I almost never cook with a wine that costs more than $20. The lone exception is if I'm serving something like Julia Child's Zinfandel of Beef for company, in which case it is nice to offer a bottle of the same wine at the table---but this is more to let people know you think they're super than anything else.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                              This is the type of advice I'm always hoping to see when wine and cooking come up together. Specific and with rationales for why and when you use what - thank you.

                              1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                                I agree with the stuff you said in your original post. I wouldn't cook with something that strikes me as 'just gross' but I cook with wine that's been open in the fridge for a couple of days, which I probably wouldn't drink, and I'd definitely use average cheap wine. Weirdly, for me it seems like there are a few ingredients that are unpleasant on their own but good in combination or once they're watered down. Like fresh cranberries taste disgusting to me-- bitter and awful-- like they could never possibly taste good-- but I love cranberry sauce. Fresh herbs, for example sage, are sometimes unpleasantly strong if you smell and taste it, but still makes nice sage butter. Maybe Marsala and such fall into this category.

                                PS am I secretly craving Thanksgiving food?

                                1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                                  Always looking for new info in the wine arena.............. what is a "fast finish"? I'm familiar with long and short finishes, but not fast ones. If you're equating to a short finish........... how does that affect the use of wine in a recipe?

                                2. (Looks around to make sure nobody is watching.) I really don't like red wines. They are usually just too strong for me.

                                  BUT, I do cook with red wine and marsala and madeira. I try to buy as good a wine as I can get but I have to buy the small bottles in the wine section at the grocery store.

                                  I don't think a blurb in a beef dish or a beef pan sauce can be beat. A lot of the alcohol is cooked off (not as much as you might think) and that is the objectionable part, I think.

                                  I have never understood the concept of Coq au Vin. Well I understand the original concept of a french farm wife wanting to cook a rooster that is too old to do anything with. She has a cellar of red wine she made and she is gonna braise a tough old rooster.

                                  What I don't understand any of us cooking it. How do you justify spending $20 for 2 bottles of decent burgundy to cook an old chicken that you can't find in a store?

                                  Sorry I digress.

                                  Anyway, I buy as good a red wine as I can afford and in the really small bottles which means it can't be very good.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: tonka11_99

                                    <How do you justify spending $20 for 2 bottles of decent burgundy to cook an old chicken that you can't find in a store?>

                                    I don't. I use 2 $8 bottles of Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone. I would only use Burgundy if I were IN Burgundy, because there you can find $3 bottles for cooking with.

                                  2. Think that restaurants cook with expensive wine? Think again. I was recently in the liquor store to buy a bottle of marsala. I was about to buy the imported marsala from Italy when the sales guy came over and told me that all the local chefs use the $5.00 a bottle stuff from California.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: cheesemaestro

                                      I bought cheap Marsala once. I ended up throwing away the dish and the rest of the bottle.

                                      1. re: jvanderh

                                        Why? what was wrong with it?

                                        Here in PA, there is often only one or two marsalas even for sale at the state store, so I'm not sure what makes a bad marsala bad or a good one good.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          It tasted like crap. Sorry I can't be more specific, but I don't know anything about wine.

                                    2. I don't drink period but used to years ago...still I keep different wines & other liquors to cook with and for guests. IMO, I don't think you need expensive wine for a dish. Everyone has favorites and most will cook with those. What is passable to some may not be to others. To the OP, I think the moral is don't cook with cooking wine....use the real stuff, whatever type you want.

                                      1. My go-to cooking wine is Charles Shaw. Sav Blanc for white, Syrah for red. Plenty of fruit, no oak, and the complete lack of subtlety just doesn't matter when it's been simmered for a while.

                                        A while back a NYTimes writer did a blind taste test of three batches of Risotto al Barolo - one made with a very nice Barolo (sob!), one with a mid-priced wine, and one with Charles Shaw cabernet. The differences were subtle, but they were there. Surprisingly, though, the panel expressed a clear preference for the dish made with 2 Buck Chuck.

                                        And Risotto al Barolo is a dish where the flavor of the wine is front and center. In something with stronger-flavored main ingredients and less focus on the wine, I'd be willing to bet that even someone with a refined palate would be hard pressed to distinguish between various wines. Babbo's famous Beef with Barolo is apparently made with a cheap California merlot, but nobody's complaining about Mario Batali's cooking.

                                        So I'm totally with you on 1 and 2. 3 and 4? Nonsense.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                          I've found two buck chuck to be wildly inconsistent, as if they just pour old batches of wine on top of new. Can't drink the stuff, and wouldn't even buy it to cook with. I'll stick to my K-J and Clos du Bois.

                                          1. re: Phurstluv

                                            It is extremely inconsistent, and I don't care for it as a drinking wine. But I cook with it all the time, and any results that have been less than outstanding have been the fault of the cook, not the wine.

                                          2. Just based on your title...no way in "H.E. double toothpicks" would I cook with a wine I would "drink" (...serve to guests in a fine dining situation). That being said, there are terrific wines (Wine Spectator 90+) that are under $10, I use those when a pot roast recipe calls for a full bottle of wine.

                                            1. Outside of specialty fortified wine/spirits like sake, marsala and vermouth I tend to buy under $10 bottles to cook with and lately I have been buying Sutter Home Cabernet', Merlot, and Chardonnay.

                                              1. I cook with wine quite often. For everyday use I have a large bottle of white wine, barefoot at the moment, which I find quite acceptable for what I use it for. I will drink this wine, but most often as a spritzer. Yes, I like spritzers on a warm day, and I am not ashamed! I wouldn't make a spritzer with a yummy white wine though.

                                                I'm a bit pickier with my reds though. I always use a wine that I would drink. But that being said I rarely spend more than $15-$20 on a bottle of wine. However I have found wines that aren't that great to be actually better for cooking. They have a note that pairs well with what I am cooking. For something like Coq au Vin, I use a better wine. Or for making a red wine sauce for a steak; because the wine is a predominant part of the sauce. I also serve the same wine I cooked with for these dishes. But in a stew with a ton of other ingredients I am not as picky, and often use the bottle of red that I tried but wasn't thrilled by.

                                                On a side note I had some Sam Adams stout that I despised, but knew it would be awesome in a stew, and it was!

                                                Of course I live in San Francisco so I get a huge variety in wines that are <$20 that are really quite tasty

                                                1. I find this to be one of those pieces of advice that is well meaning, but limited when it comes to practicality.

                                                  I interpret it to mean that you shouldn't cook with wine that isn't good enough to drink by itself and be enjoyed. However, that varies *widely* with person. I know people who happily drink two buck chuck, which I think is pretty vile. I also know people whose minimum wine drinking standards are out of my price range.

                                                  I tend to buy a cheapish bottle of wine, not cooking wine, but something that I wouldn't really choose to drink it on my own, and keep it in the fridge for when I need small amounts of wine. For a dish that's dominated by the wine, then I would buy something specifically for it, but would still buy on the cheap end.

                                                  For me, a lot of the issue is simply price. Spending $15-20 dollars for a single ingredient for meal is pretty expensive, and that's on the low end of wine prices in most places I've lived. In that cases, it's usually cheap wine or nothing. If I buy pricier wine, I'm going to drink it, not cook with it!

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                    I think the biggest misunderstanding here is that decent drinkable wine has to be more costly. That's just not the case; it just has to be chosen carefully. I never cook with a wine that's more than $9 or $10, and in some cases, just a little more than half that. It has to be worthy of drinking, not expensive. After reading reviews, I've used Goats do Roam table wine ($7) and I often use Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo wines. There are a lot of cheap, good enough to drink and cook with cabernets out there, and burgundies, too.

                                                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                                      Same goes for me. It comes down to what I have on hand. Since it’s difficult to keep an expensive bottle of wine around, I also buy cheaper brands for cooking because I know they’ll be the last to be randomly opened.

                                                    2. That is one of the most often misused and misunderstood quotes in cooking. The quote is attributed to Julia Child and was orginally a commentary on cooking wine, which was much more common at the time she said that. The NYT wrote an article last year about this topic and concluded that the cooking process eliminates the subtle differences between cheap wines and expensive ones.

                                                      1. Hmmm....Now I am a bit confused as to what I should cook with when making a cream sauce calling for white wine or sherry, or marsala sauce. I naively bought the cooking variety, because I thought, "oh great...it's right here at the grocery store." I don't drink at all, and therefore have never been to any liquor/wine store in my area. Any suggestions for me? I noticed that I am not thrilled with the taste in my sauces, but didn't know what else to use.

                                                        8 Replies
                                                        1. re: amylovescupcakes

                                                          Doesn't your grocery store sell beer & wine? If so, they should also have decent wines to cook with, you can start in the $5-6 range and find one you think makes your sauces taste good.

                                                          1. re: Phurstluv

                                                            You know, I think I looked a long time ago, and they didn't...but I could be confused because the two Wal-Marts that we have in Texarkana are in two different states. I am not sure if it's Bowie County, Texas that is dry or Miller County, Arkansas. I guess I need to check into that. Some times living in a border city can be highly confusing :) Maybe I should try a regular grocery store rather than Wal-Mart, also.

                                                            1. re: amylovescupcakes

                                                              Ah, the old dry county issue. That's gotta suck.

                                                          2. re: amylovescupcakes

                                                            Time to venture into the wine store. Your first purchase should be a cheap bottle (maybe even a half-bottle) of dry vermouth. Julia Child recommends it as a substitute for white wine, and unlike traditional white wines it lasts quite a while after being opened if you keep it in the fridge. And while the quality of vermouth can make or break a martini, I find that Gallo or LeJon are perfectly fine for cooking. Try it - it will only cost you a few bucks, and will very likely make a big difference in the quality of your sauces.

                                                            After that, consider branching out to an inexpensive dry sherry (not cream sherry) and/or a bottle of marsala. Again, they'll last several months if you keep them chilled, and will really improve the flavor of your dishes.

                                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                                              Thank you, Alan, I think I am less confused now :) I will go this weekend and see what I can find.

                                                            2. re: amylovescupcakes

                                                              I'm surprised that no one has mentioned six packs of wine. I always keep some around for cooking. They're great for recipes that call for just a small amount of wine.

                                                              1. re: vicarious

                                                                Curious. What is a 'six pack of wine'?? I know that the PLCB controls wine sales in PA, so these may be something unique to your state. In California a 'six pack' would be a carrier of six bottles bought at the same time. The wine could be anything sold in the store. If a 'six pack' is the almost miniature bottles (splits, we'd call them) they are almost always very inferior product in our area. The only place I ever see them is in Cost Plius World Market, and in smallish gift baskets at the holidays.

                                                                1. re: Midlife

                                                                  Sorry for the ambiguity. I meant the very small bottles--splits, I guess, sold in multipacks (usually 4, not 6--oops). I am in PA, but I think that they are widely available. No dispute on the quality of the wine, but I am recommending these little bottles for cooking, not drinking.

                                                            3. <Don't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink.>

                                                              That's what "they" all say, but it's not as easy as that. There are wines you would love to drink -- for instance, an oaky chardonnay or a tannic Cab Sauv -- that do not go well in food precisely because as the wine cooks down, the oak (tannin) becomes more pronounced in your dish, and that was never the taste you were going for.

                                                              As well, I don't know about Keller, because I've never been in his walkin, but you'd be surprised at the number of fine restaurants who cook with Franzia box wines. I shall not name names, but they are legion.

                                                              Fruitier wines generally are better for cooking. and those one-dimensional wines we really don't want to drink are just fine for the pot roast.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: ChefJune

                                                                It's the same reason I keep Budweiser around. I parboil bratwurst in it before finishing the brats on the grill. I would never drink that stuff, but cooking with it turns out some pretty tasty bratwurst.

                                                              2. Cook's Illustrated did a test on this - and they found that when used for braises, cheap wine tastes just as good as expensive wine, because as you mentioned, the complex flavors of the good wine just disappear after a long simmer.

                                                                They found that boxed Franzia is just as good as any other wine for cooking purposes. I'm not going out to buy Franzia just so I can cook with it, but I always reach for the cheapest bottle/box I have when cooking.