John JuergensCooking with wine: Julia, we have a problem

One of the cookbooks in my collection flatly opines, "There is hardly a dish on any menu, from appetizers to desserts, that cannot be sparked to perfection with the careful use of wine."

I do a fair amount of what might be considered "fancy cookin,'" but I rarely use wine, even when the recipe calls for it. This is not to say that I don't cook with wine. I always have a glass of something handy to keep me motivated while slaving over a hot stove.

As the statement above from my cookbook suggests, there seems to be an intuitive sense that if wine can do wonders for enhancing food on the table, it should also be able to enhance it in the skillet, pot, or baking dish. But I think these are two completely different aspects of the relationship between wine and food.

When pairing a wine with the final dish, you want to maximize the sensory experience of complementary flavors of the wine and the flavors of the dish. But in cooking with wine the idea is to add a very subtle nuance (the redundancy intended) that helps enhance the flavors in the food. In other words, you really do not want to taste the wine as an individual ingredient.

I'm not going to get into recommendations about what kinds of wines to use with what kinds of dishes because your cookbooks will be the best guides on that. But I want to touch on a few general issues that I think are really key to successful use of wine and other types of alcohol in cooking, some of which might be obvious to those of you who frequently use wine. I'll end up with an idea that might solve the major problem that I, and I suspect others, have in cooking with wine.

First, I thought the myth that it's okay to cook with an old wine that has gone a bit sour and is no longer drinkable had pretty much been exposed as being just plain stupid. Would you pour sour milk on your cereal? But someone made a comment to me just last week about putting a wine that had been in their fridge for several weeks into a stew. As the saying goes, why would you want to cook with a wine that you wouldn't want to drink?

Bottom line: If a wine has aged to the point that you would not want to drink it, pour it down the drain. Or, better yet, pour it on your compost pile where it will blend nicely with the other rotting materials and give you some very happy bacteria.

My second issue is with the notion that all wines will eventually turn into cooking-grade vinegar. Big mistake. Cooking vinegar is made in carefully controlled processes to achieve specific flavors. When a wine is left to go to "vinegar" on its own, a whole lot of other things are produced along the way that don't taste very good and which you don't want contaminating the flavor of your food. This also goes for those grocery-store "cooking wines." You will be much better off buying a real sherry at the wine shop.

My third big point, which is reinforced by every cookbook I have ever seen, is to be very judicious with the amount of wine you put in a dish. Being heavy-handed and just sloshing in a load of wine usually will overpower the dish and give it weird flavors. In addition, this technique will leave behind a fair amount of alcohol, which probably will not enhance most dishes.

This goes for any kind of alcohol. Always start small and taste your way up. I have a to-die-for crawfish bisque recipe in which I sometimes use a touch of Maker's Mark Bourbon. I have learned the hard way that even half a teaspoon too much can ruin the flavor of the dish.

My final issue, which is closely related to my problem of cooking with wine in general, has to do with the type of wine to use when the recipe calls for "a half-cup of dry white (or red) wine." Here's my problem. When I'm preparing a nice meal I usually think in terms of the kinds of wines I want to serve with the different courses, which might not be the best types of wines to use in the cooking. Taking a look at a sample of recipes, the recommendations usually suggest something like a Chablis, a Riesling, or other grape types that I don't normally drink with my meals. Even if I got a bottle of one of the suggested wines, I only need one-half cup, so what do I do with the rest of it? Right, let it turn to "vinegar" and then use it to make salad dressing. Consequently, for me the expense of buying a whole bottle of wine when I only need a fraction of a cup goes completely against my Germanic grain.

That's the main reason I don't cook with wine. Occasionally, I have tossed in whatever kind of wine I would be serving with the meal. One could argue that this should be an ideal situation because it builds on a concept that the Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme calls a "redundancy of flavors." But I have a difficult time sacrificing even one-half cup of an elegant wine to the marginal or subliminal effect it might have on the dish. And something just bothers me about this sort of make-do approach to fine cooking, even though those of you who know my cooking style also know how cavalier I tend to be toward recipes. Yep, I'm a recipe hypocrite.

This brings me to an idea I should have tried a long time ago to deal with this problem. A couple of weeks ago I bought a bottle of a new Sauvignon Blanc in anticipation of reporting on it here as one of my wines of the week. But it was so acidic that I found it difficult to drink. It wasn't a wine gone bad, but just at the far end of the acceptable range of tartness. I pondered what to do with the wine before dispatching it to compost Purgatory to atone for its vinous sins. Normally, I just make a nice spritzer out of a wine such as this. You can mask a lot of sins with a little fruit juice and some sparkling water. But then it hit me: why not just freeze the wine and use it for cooking when I need just a small amount of dry (very) white wine for an acidic recipe.

I know this amounts to heresy in some circles, but I froze the wine and about a week later tasted it to see what it was like. I was concerned that the wine might separate and give an uneven distribution of the fruit flavors, alcohol, and water, but it was fine. So what I now plan to do is get a bottle of several different inexpensive but well-made wines - red, white and Sherry - transfer them to plastic containers, and freeze them. This way I will always have "fresh" wine in just the right amounts for cooking, which will allow me to enjoy the full potential of any dish that can be "sparked to perfection" with a touch of wine.

Wine picks of the week

I have two high-end (i.e. expensive) big reds to recommend this week. First is an elegant red Zinfandel made by Dry Creek Vineyards called simply Old Vine Zinfandel. The 2003 vintage is made from vines that are over 80 years old, and it has all the dark blackberry and raspberry of a classical red Zin, but it adds a certain finesse and silkiness that comes only from very old vines. About $28. Vin-Test scores: Sweetness: 0.5; Crispness: 4.0; Pucker Factor: 8; Body: 10.

Next is a massive California Syrah made by the Garretson people called Craic, pronounced "Crack," which opens up numerous opportunities for irreverent comments. This wine will make you dizzy just smelling it. It has a whopping 15.4% alcohol and is densely packed with rich dark berry flavors even though it has a bit of white wine blended with it. You can almost stand a spoon up in this stuff; it's that dense. Not for the meek at about $35. Vin-Test scores: Sweetness: 1.0; Crispness: 6; Pucker Factor: 7.5; Body: 10+.

March 2007

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