What is the best red wine for cooking? Are some red wines better than others, or are red wines interchangeable, regardless of the recipe? Are there wines made only for cooking? These questions (and more) will be answered in the following sections.

Are There Wines Made Only For Cooking?

Yes, some wines are made just for cooking. Two of the most recognized are Cooking Marsala, an Italian white wine, and Cooking Sherry, a Spanish red wine. Many recipes call for one of these wines specifically; for example, we’ve all heard of Chicken Marsala.

There are also generic red and white wines that have balanced acidity and sweetness and have little or no alcohol content. A great source of generic cooking wines is the Holland House company. They provide a sample pack of these four cooking wines (Marsala, Cooking Sherry, Cooking Red and Cooking White) that you can order here.

What Kind Of Recipes Benefit From Red Wine?

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Answering this question requires us to hearken back to the times when there was no refrigeration, and meat would slightly decompose prior to cooking unless it was heavily salted and spiced. One way early chefs covered up the taste of meat that was, shall we say, less than fresh was to submerge it in a full-flavored, pungent sauce.

Red wine was a popular component in these early meat sauces. Not only did red wine add flavor to the sauce, but the tannins broke down the meat tissues, making the meat more tender. The wine’s alcohol content also helped remove some harmful bacteria that could build up in older pieces of meat. So we often find red wine in savory stews of beef, lamb, and even pork.

Red wine is not just for meat sauces, though. For much the same reason, red wine (particularly Burgundy) is used in some fowl dishes, particularly with gamier or tougher birds. One fowl recipe we’ve always heard about is the classic Coq au Vin.

When, as sometimes happened in French farmhouses, the rooster reached an age where he could no longer perform his rooster-ly duties, he was summarily dispatched and became the protein for that evening’s meal. You can imagine how tough a bird an old rooster was, so the beneficial effects of red wine and a long cooking period resulted in one of the most all-time most recognized French menu items.

Can You Substitute White Wine For Red In A Recipe?

In a word, no. Nor should you do the opposite. Red wine contains tannins, which can overpower a subtle sauce needed for most fish dishes. Conversely, white wine does not have the softening effect that red wines have on meat.

The subtle taste of white wine can be lost among the intense flavors in most meat sauces. If it adds nothing to the flavor, then why bother? Save the white wine for drinking, either by itself or with an appropriate dish..

How To Choose The Best Red Wine For Cooking

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Is there one best red wine for cooking? No. No more than there’s just one red wine for drinking with a meal, regardless of the course being served. Wines pair with food based on several factors, as discussed below.

Tannin Content

Some red wines have more tannin than others, as we all know. The amount of tannins in the wine depend on several factors. One is the size of the grapes. A small grape, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, has a low skin-to-must ratio (“must” being the geeky term for grape juice that will be fermented).

A larger-berried wine grape, such as Zinfandel, has a much higher skin-to-must ratio. Then why, you may ask, are so many Zinfandels high in tannin?

Enter the lowly harvest intern. Harvest interns are people, usually young and most often viniculture or enology students, who hire themselves out at near slave wages to learn about the wine business, particularly in production, first hand. One of their less-popular tasks (not that there are many popular ones) involves taking a paddle and punching down the cap, stirring the grape skins back into the wine to extract the maximum amount of tannin.

Some wines are punched down (or pumped over, a similar technique but in reverse) three or four times a day while fermentation is ongoing.

Flavor Components

Let’s face it: not all red wines taste the same. The sophisticated palate can tell a Cab from a Zin and a Pinot Noir from a Syrah. Certain wines pair better with certain foods than other wines do. It’s the same with choosing wines for cooking. If you’d drink the wine with the dish, then it’s a good wine to use in the recipe.

Cost

Does the quality of the wine reflect itself in the recipe’s taste? Yes, but not enough to throw a $10,000 bottle of Chateau Lafitte-Rothchild 2003 into your stew pot!

By the same token, if the wine is beneath the quality you would want to drink even with a humble meal, then you really shouldn’t use it in the recipe. Nowadays there are a lot of decent red wines at reasonable prices. Look for one of those when preparing your recipe.

Heat

Pairing the proper wine with the recipe is only one factor affecting the taste of the dish. Another that is just as important is how you cook it. As wine heats, the flavor components of the wine, called esters, begin to break down. The higher the heat, the more rapidly the flavors can go from complementary to awful.

In a slowly simmering stew, this is not much of a problem. But in a pan sauce cooked over a high heat, it can go from good to horrible rapidly. The best advice is to cook your wine-infused pan sauces with a low simmer rather than a rapid boil. Using a skillet rather than a sauce pan will allow the larger surface area to reduce the wine more quickly, even with low heat.

The Best Red Wine For Cooking

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So is there one best red wine for cooking? Not overall. The best red wine for a particular recipe depends on the recipe itself. Listed below are some classic pairings. Use these as a guide to help you select the best red wine for any similar dish.

Braised Lamb Shanks

The lamb shank is a tough piece of meat that needs braising (cooking long and slow in a liquid) to tenderize. A spicy Syrah (what the Australians call “Shiraz”) is an excellent wine to use with this recipe

Pan Seared And Roasted Duck Breast

Duck is a full-flavored fowl. A duck breast is usually cooked in a pan to render the fat and is then coated with a glaze and finished in the oven. A good wine to use in the sauce or glaze is a full-bodied, jammy red, such as a Zinfandel.

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs

Beef short ribs are about as full-flavored as a meat can get. Most beef-braising recipes therefore call for using a Cabernet Sauvignon.

But there’s a caveat here. While you will probably want to serve a good Cab alongside this dish, that choice may not be the best for the recipe. Here’s why: the tannin level of less expensive and less aged bottles of Cabernet can be quite high. There is a world of difference between an inexpensive, young Cabernet and a sophisticated, aged one. Too tannic a wine may cause bitter flavors to be imparted to the sauce.

Here, an excellent substitute is a Merlot. Merlots are softer and less tannic than Cabs. So unless you plan on using a high-quality, well aged Cabernet in your recipe, you would be wise to consider substituting a Merlot.

Tomato Sauce

We associate tomato sauce with Italian Roma tomatoes, so it should come as no surprise that one of the best wines to use in this versatile concoction is Italian Sangiovese. Try to select a reasonably priced Chianti Classico for the best result. Molto bene!

tomato sauce in a black pot

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Slow-Cooked Boeuf Bourguignon

This is a dish that originated in the Burgundy region of eastern France, so it seems logical that a red Burgundy would pair well with it. The name itself refers to the French name for Burgundy: Bourgogne. Another good pairing with this and similar slow-cooked beef dishes is a red Grenache blend.

Conclusion

Here are some things to remember when selecting the best red wine for cooking. Select a wine that you prefer to drink with the dish, unless the recipe specifically calls for another wine (but ignore that if you have a good reason—it’s your meal, after all!)

Don’t go overboard buying an expensive wine to cook with, but don’t use an inexpensive wine of such poor quality that you wouldn’t drink it. Also, consider substituting a Merlot when a recipe calls for a Cabernet. Chefs have bigger wine budgets than most of us and can afford to cook with more expensive bottles.

Be careful when using wine in a pan sauce. Too much heat can ruin your dish. Wines made specifically for cooking (cooking sherry, cooking marsala) are good substitutes for more expensive brands.

And don’t worry about using that leftover wine. If you’re like most people, you know what to do with it!