Q: I am making a braised beef brisket that requires a “dry red wine” but does not recommend a type. I have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in the house. Do I need to buy something different? ~ Erica

A: Ah, the eternal cooking with wine question. I have stewed (no pun intended) over this same question many times. What exactly does it mean when it says dry wine and why do so many chefs get caught up with listing “good dry red wine” in their recipes. What I think is good might not be what you think is good. The quick no nonsense answer to Erica’s question is no, you don’t need to buy anything different. Use the Cabernet. For more information on cooking with wine than Erica asked for, read on.

Wine does many things in foods. Often it is used to impart complexity and richness to a dish, add acidity, marinate a piece of meat or deglaze a pan. Many savory recipes call for “dry” white or red wines. Technically speaking, the amount of sugar left over at the end of fermentation determines whether the wine is dry or sweet. The more sugar left at the end, the sweeter the wine. When a recipe calls for a “dry wine” it is not referring to the amount of tannins in a wine (which leave a dry taste in your mouth). Rather, it is asking you to avoid a wine that is “sweet.” Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are all examples of dry wines. Port, Sherry, Madeira, Muscat, ice wine and late harvest wine are examples of sweet wines. Grapes, such as Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer can be fermented to be either sweet or dry. Cooking wine and sherry do not belong in any category and should be avoided at all costs as they contain salt and other preservatives.

If you want to be a stickler for wine cooking etiquette, you will cook with wine that exhibits flavors similar to those within the dish you are cooking. For instance, last week I was making a lamb stew that included cinnamon. I went to Alpine Wines and Mike helped me pick out a Syrah which was rich and had hints of cinnamon. Good pairing. Yesterday, though, as I made a pot of marinara sauce, I decided that the Tempranillo that I had open from the night before would be fine. I am sure a lovely Italian Chianti would have been a better match, but I find no reason to waste a perfectly good open bottle of vino.

Most food and wine experts will say, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. This statement is not only false, but also not helpful, especially if you don’t drink. My mother used to cook Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon using Charles Shaw Merlot or Cabernet because the recipe called for an entire bottle of dry red wine. Those of you who have shopped at a Trader Joe’s know this to be nicknamed Two Buck Chuck, as it cost $1.99 a bottle (well at least it did 10 years ago). While my mom wouldn’t have been caught dead serving this at a dinner party, her Beef Bourguignon was delicious…and didn’t break the bank. If you are cooking a cheap cut of meat and need a lot of wine which will not be drastically reduced, try out an inexpensive wine. If you are heavily reducing the amount of wine in a dish, as would be the case with a pan sauce, I recommend spending the extra couple of dollars on a nicer bottle. When wine is reduced, its flavor is concentrated. If you use wine that has off flavors, those flavors will be intensified and your sauce will taste off.

There are options for those folks who don’t think they will go through an entire bottle of wine before it goes bad. Several winemakers are now making four packs of mini-bottles, with each bottle the equivalent of one glass of wine. I have heard people recommend boxed wine, but I find that unless you are drinking the wine as well as cooking with it, there is no way that one can finish off the entire box before the wine starts to oxidize in one to two months. Those of you with a stocked liquor cabinet can experiment with dry vermouth, brandy or cognac. If you don’t have the above or would rather not have booze around, stocks and broths can be used to deglaze pans and impart complexity. Vinegar and citrus juice or zest will add acidity. Experiment, have fun and above all, don’t ever take cooking with wine, or cooking in general too seriously.

Questions can be sent to mykitchenwisdom@yahoo.com

Cooking With Wine Recipes

When you are looking for quantity and quality is not as important (the wine won’t be reduced)

When you are reducing the amount of wine, as in a pan sauce, where quality does matter, so spend the extra couple of bucks.