There’s a not-so-secret formula for success that many home chefs share. Whether they’re preparing a weekday family meal or planning a weekend dinner party, they always keep a good bottle of wine open on the kitchen counter. Of course, some of that wine will find its way into whatever they use for their “cooking glass” to sip on while they chop and mix. But mostly the wine is to pour into the skillet, pan or pot to add flavor and nuance to appetizers, entrées and even desserts.
Professional chefs follow the same practice—at least to a point. “Always drink wine while cooking,” says Doug Ruley, known to vacationers as the chef at Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar in Bethany Beach. “At home, of course—never on the job.”
Anthony Vietri is on both sides of the bottle as owner and winemaker at Va La Vineyards in Avondale. “Not surprisingly, we use wine from our ‘garden’ in our cooking fairly regularly,” he says. “It’s about as local as we can get.”
While everyone uses a variety of spices in the kitchen, too often they forget that wine can lend flavor and depth. Adding a half-glass of a hearty red to beef stew is about as easy as falling off a bar stool. But there are rules. “Always use a wine you’d want to drink,” says Ruley. “If it says ‘cooking wine’ on the label, stay far away.”
It should also be in the same taste family as the wine you’ll be drinking at the table. For example, you most likely wouldn’t cook with a fragrant riesling if you’re going to be drinking a sassy New Zealand sauvignon blanc with that dish. “You almost always want to cook out wine, either by high heat and reduction or by cooking at a low temperature for a very long time,” says Tyler Akin of Le Cavalier at the Hotel Du Pont.
“The raw flavor of wine is better in a glass than on a plate.”
A more flamboyant way to reduce the alcohol (and set off the smoke detectors) is by flaming, as with steak au poivre. Akin also advises not to use wines that have been heavily oaked—no matter how nice they taste in the glass. “Oaked wines almost always become bitter and unpleasant [in cooking],” he says, “And the vanilla-like qualities of oaked wines are also impossible to hide.”
Akin also discounts using leftover wines for cooking. “Wine left open for too long that you wouldn’t want to drink will be as unfortunate to eat,” he warns. “Though the offense would be a little more subtle than if you drank a glass.”
Another rule makes sense up to a point: Cook with the same wine you’re having for dinner. Still, the subtleties of a Meursault or a Napa cabernet in the $100 range might be lost in the trial by fire. Plus, it’s an expensive practice.
Some local winemakers like to cook with their vintages. Other don’t. “Using our own wines for food preparation wouldn’t be the best use of them,” says Lele Galer, co-owner of Galer Estate Vineyard & Winery in Kennett Square. “I’d use a cheap heavy red for beef Bourguignon or a similarly cheap white for a different sauce reduction.”
At Penns Woods Winery in Chadds Ford, Carley Razzi uses her Viognier in infused mushroom fondue and her pinot noir in spaghetti chitarra alla carbonara, both in the sauce and with a rose-colored, pinot-infused pasta.
On a daily basis, Vietri uses Va La Vineyards’ red wines in things like iron skillet steak, slow-cooked beef roast, polenta and sausage, and beef stew. “We also like to use our La Prima Donna [white blend] for dishes like sautéed chicken thighs, beans and greens, as well as seasonal dishes like spaghetti with oyster mushrooms and wild dandelions, sautéed wild broccoli rabe, and roast rabbit,” he says.
“Always use a wine you’d want to drink. If it says ‘cooking wine’ on the label, stay far away.”
—Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar’s Doug Ruley
Our local chefs also suggested some interesting wine-based dishes. “We use Sancerre for our mussels dish with andouille butter,” says Akin. “We use it to glean some minerality. It’s enough of a full-bodied wine to be assertive, but not so full that it would overwhelm or challenge for primacy within the dish.”
“A real simple way to use wine is to slowly reduce it and use in a dressing for salad,” adds Ruley. “A reduced syrah chilled and blended with a bit of Dijon, minced shallots, fresh herbs and a nice extra-virgin olive oil, then tossed with some local greens, is a great way to kick off a meal. Pan sauces are also a great way to incorporate wine to a dish. Mussels come to mind—steamed in chardonnay with hints of garlic and finished with butter and a pinch of red chili flakes. The chardonnay makes a great sopping sauce after the mussels are finished off. You’ll definitely need crusty bread.”
Wine and spirits can also go well with dessert preparation. Plain ruby or vintage port is especially flexible. Wood ports like tawnies don’t work as well because of the oak flavors.
My go-to dessert for company is a sabayon (or zabaglione) flavored with vintage port, then spooned over fresh blackberries in a balloon glass—followed by a small glass of the same port and a double espresso, of course.