Cooking 101

Chris Cooks

Lesson 1: Working with Wine

By Christopher Werner March 30, 2010

If you're lucky, there may be some wine left when you're finished.

 In this city, knowing your food is akin to knowing your ABCs. That said, consider me—a hapless gastro-wannabe with zero culinary finesse—illiterate. For this new series, I’m setting out to change that. I’ll cook my way through random recipes, document the successes and failures, and consult a local food figure to get their insight and tips.

Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as too much wine—especially in beef stew. When I attempted to replicate The Silver Spoon‘s recipe for stew with wine and onions, what resulted was a boozy bust, the wine so dominating I could barely choke down a spoonful.

This week’s guru: Lynne Vea, an instructor with PCC Cooks who leads popular monthly wine dinners.

So, Lynne, the recipe called for 1 and 2/3 cups of white and red wine each. What could have worked as a substitute, if anything?

[I would have used] about half that amount of wine, and only the red wine. After the wine had reduced a bit I would add 1 and 2/3 cup of rich beef stock.

Besides actually reducing the amount of wine, what else could have cut the intensity?

Wine adds depth, savory character, and a pleasing earthy acidity that our taste buds love. The alcohol in wine is bitter. The flavors we love when cooking with wine come after the alcohol has been dissipated. Alcohol dissipates rather rapidly when heated, so as long as the wine has some time to simmer or has been reduced it will lose that raw edge.

To take that a step further, I love the intense flavors that reducing wine in a dish imparts. By reduction I mean adding the wine at a stage in the recipe where the wine is the only liquid in the pan (there could be other elements, such as onions and pancetta) and letting it cook until most of the water is evaporated and the wine is nearly a syrup. Then additional liquids can be added and the sauce or the dish can be finished from there.

The bottle I picked up was on sale for under $10. Could it have been that the wine was too cheap? 

The golden rule of just about any chef I know is never cook with a wine you wouldn’t enjoy drinking. We joke that this is because there will be some left in the bottle after you add it to a dish, and of course something has to happen to it! But the other reason is that cheap wines or wines that have been open too long tend to have a lot of acidity. A dash of acidity in wine is part of its sparkling appeal. Too much—leaning towards vinegar—will ruin a dish. This doesn’t mean the wine has to be expensive, just enjoyable. Whether you use a sweet or dry wine depends on the dish. Most savory foods do well with a quality dry wine.

Does it matter which varietal I use? 

There are subtle differences in wines that will be evident in the final flavors of the dish. Cab is usually aged in a lot of oak, and will give you a pretty tannic finish. Syrah has a lot of pepper and that will come through. Merlot is a more gentle wine and works well for dishes with more subtle seasoning. The same goes for whites—different varietals offer varying degrees of intensity.

Any favorite brands?

I do like to support Washington wines, and I tend to lean toward the truly caring vintners. To name just a few: Corvidae, Domaine Pouillon, Syncline, and Powers.

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