a bottle of vermouth a bottle of marsala and a bottle of sherry all used for cooking

Cooking with Wine

An amateur’s look at Cooking with Wine

Did you grow up in a family where using wine for cooking was common? I did not. In fact my family didn’t even drink wine. I was born into a meat and potatoes family. Milk and butter were the staples found in most of our cooking. It never occurred to me to add wine to a dish, even if the recipe called for it.

My ancestors are of English descent but for generations have been in New England, which when I was growing up was a mecca for the meat and potatoes crowd. My grandmother never served a tomato sauce. At her house I ate spaghetti with, yup, milk and butter. Every meal on my grandmother’s table or my mother’s for that matter had butter, milk or both. It’s no wonder that I started my cooking journey dismissing the idea of using wine as an ingredient in cooking.

You eat what you are

As I have been thinking about cooking with wine it became pretty obvious to me that even in these times, with so many multicultural food choices available, many of us still continue making the dishes that were made by our mothers, fathers or grandparents. Often those are dishes made by their mothers and fathers and grandparents.

Spices and ingredients used in our everyday cooking vary depending on a family’s cultural heritage. If you trace the traditional meals of a culture back through generations, the spices and ingredients used in their cooking are those that grow and thrive in that part of the world. Of course.

It’s no surprise that recipes that typically call for wine as an ingredient originate from France, Italy, Greece, Spain and other Mediterranean countries where grapes grow in abundance. Back in the days when families had to be self sufficient, they used what was available to them for meal preparation. Water was not always the easiest or safest liquid available. So if it was wine you had in your kitchen that’s what you used.

My ancestors apparently had products available to them derived from livestock. Their recipes called for milk, butter, cheese and they used lard in their cooking. Ale and beer were the beverages of the masses in medieval Great Britain. But somewhere between generations past, and my family recipes, if beer was used in cooking, it did not carry down. The New England Puritans may have had something to do with that.

Learning from cookbooks

Cookbooks can teach you a lot more than one may think. Especially those that provide the reader with information about food preparation and other related homemaking skills like food planning and shopping for food. Information and recipes change depending on the time and place of the people it is being written for. As an example, cooking equipment can change dramatically depending on when a cookbook was written. Believe it or not, there was a day when cooks didn’t have microwave ovens, slow cookers, air fryers and instant pots. 😊

I have accumulated a lot of cookbooks over the years, but there are 2 that are precious to me. They are a great example of how changing times bring changes in recipes and food preparation.

My grandmother’s cookbook

I have my grandmother’s 1906 edition of “The Boston Cooking School Cook Book” written by Fannie Merritt Farmer. My grandmother attended the Boston Cooking School and it was her text book. On the inside of the back cover the price of the book is written. It cost a whopping $1.50. It is an absolutely fascinating look back in time.

The cooking instructions include how much wood you should put in the stove to get the temperature you need when you are making baked goods. There is an advertisement for a 5 pound tin of lard.

Did you think cold brew coffee was something new. Well in 1906 you could get a 16 cup cold brew coffee pot for $2.00 with free shipping East of the Mississippi. A 4 cup pot was only $1.25. The ad says it’s so easy that even a child can use it.

Some of the ingredients really surprised me. Minute tapioca. I never would have guessed I would find minute tapioca in a 1906 cookbook. And maraschino cherries were called for in several recipes. If you couldn’t afford real coffee from coffee beans you could buy wheat coffee as a substitute.

In the meal planning section there were sample menus. They all include 3 full meals a day. And each of those 3 meals had homemade baked goods as well as a cooked main course.

Any “canned goods” used in cooking were those that you preserved yourself. Apparently a homemaker spent a lot of time on cooking!

I can’t resist showing you this extraordinary cookbook. These books are not rare. They were widely distributed over the years so you could get one yourself, probably in better shape then Nany’s. You will see that it is pretty clear just from the cover and cover page that the book is almost 120 years old. There is something even more special than the cookbook itself. My grandmother’s cookbook has recipes she had hand written. All in all, this is the best kind of heirloom in my book (pun intended).

a picture of the 1906 edition of the boston cooking school cook book
the cover page of the 1906 edition of the boston cooking school cook book
a handwritten recipe found in a 1906 cook book

My mother’s cookbook

My other prized cookbook is the one my mother used when I was growing up. “The Hood Basic Cook Book” was published in 1949. Are you familiar with Hood milk and ice cream? The founder of the H.P. Hood company was a pioneer in the world of milk and dairy products in the 1800’s. The company continued to operate as a Hood family business until the 1990’s.

Some history of the book

In 1933 The Hood family published their first cookbook. The foreword of the book explains that it was written as a guide to help young women who were new to homemaking. It came to be because a member of the Hood family had a daughter that got married and didn’t have a lot of experience in cooking, baking, shopping or meal planning. Her parents put together a book to give instruction on all those things. It also included easy to make recipes. They knew there were a lot of other young women in the same position as their daughter, so they offered it to the public.

My mother’s updated version

That original cookbook was updated in 1949, my mother’s cookbook. The preface of the cookbook explains that the updated version was published to include more up to date information and recipes using processed and semi-processed foods newly available. And it includes information on (then new) food preparation equipment. They write that they thought it important to provide this new information because now (in 1949) there were “women with full time jobs”. Those working women had less time to shop and cook so they needed some shortcuts.

Sticker shock for a weekly food budget

This cookbook has a large section on how to save money on feeding your family. It noted that the price of feeding a family for a week had risen to $14.00. And it advised cooks to limit buying prepared foods such as a loaf of bread because it was twice the cost of making it at home. It also said that eating out at a restaurant should be a rare occasion because it was the most expensive way to feed your family. But went on to say that a “well made meal” at a restaurant when you could afford it would “help family morale and give the cook new ideas”.

a picture of the hood basic cook book published in 1949

Here is my mother’s 1949 cookbook. As you can see it is also pretty beat up. She used it, I use it and even my son has used it. He also wrote on some of the pages as he was learning to write. This book is irreplaceable.

It seems this book is a little more rare than my grandmother’s, even though it is a lot more recent, relatively speaking.

Cookbooks detail the signs of the times

With new times comes new recipes and new ways of doing things. Cookbooks reflect and record the changes in everyday life in practical terms.

Some things remain the same

Both of these cookbooks have things in common. They both include detailed information about food items and food preparation, not just recipes. Both were written in New England and obviously for New Englanders of their time. They are full of wonderful dinner recipes made with meat and potatoes, milk and butter.

Here’s another thing they had in common. I had to really search to find any recipes that called for wine. My grandmother’s 1906 cookbook actually had some sauces that called for sherry or port wine. The only recipe I could find in the Hood cookbook was a seafood Newburg sauce recipe which called for cooking sherry. Not even the real thing.

It’s time to demystify wine

The question left in my mind is why people like me, who didn’t see wine being used as an ingredient in everyday cooking, came to believe that it was something different than any other ingredient. Even people I know of Mediterranean descent don’t use wine in their cooking.

Let’s unravel the myths and mystery about cooking with wine.

Use wine for the flavor

Wine is used in cooking as a flavoring. That’s all there is to it. There’s no reason to be intimidated. It’s really no different than using vanilla in dessert recipes. Vanilla is an extract mixed with alcohol to preserve it. Most wines used regularly in cooking such as marsala, sherry and vermouth are fortified wines. That means that distilled alcohol has been added as a preservative. Think of using wine as you do using vanilla.

Making a comparison of using wine like you would vanilla is a valid one.

We all know what vanilla tastes like. It’s hard to find a dessert recipe which doesn’t call for vanilla. Not only does it add it’s irresistible unique flavor, it also makes a dish taste sweeter because of the way it interacts with our taste buds. If you made your favorite dessert and forgot to add the vanilla, it just wouldn’t be as good.

Even the way vanilla influences other flavors would be noticeable. Consider a glass of milk and the difference in the taste it would have if you added some vanilla. Add sugar to that glass of milk with added vanilla and you have a milkshake. It is the combination of all three ingredients that transform a glass of milk into a delicious vanilla milk shake.

Using wine as an ingredient in either sweet or savory dishes works in the same way as using vanilla does. It adds that unique “something” to the recipe that you can’t get otherwise. It’s not a matter of better or not. A good dish is good, with or without wine. But if you see wine on the ingredient list of a recipe that tells you that the suggested wine will add an important element to the finished dish.

You don’t need to be a wine lover

You don’t need to be a wine drinker to like what it brings to a recipe. The taste of wine in a cooked recipe is very different than the taste of the same wine when you drink it. I am not a big wine drinker myself. There are some sweet wines I don’t mind sipping from time to time, but wine is not a beverage of choice for me.

Lots of good meals happen with wine

Many of us have restaurant favorites that we don’t make at home. Most of my favorites that I didn’t make at home was because they were made with wine. I finally had to try.

It all started with chicken marsala

I came to using wine years ago when I decided to attempt making chicken marsala at home. It was one of my Italian restaurant favorites.

It was years before the advent of the internet so making a restaurant meal at home was a trial and error ordeal. There’s something to be said for trial and error. Like the old saying goes, you learn from your mistakes. In my attempts to make chicken marsala at home I tried to capture the sweetness of a marsala sauce with other sweet ingredients. Thinking back I tried some ridiculous substitutes. No go. No marsala, no marsala sauce.

So despite thinking I was about to take a leap into a level of culinary skill I wasn’t ready for, I bought a bottle of marsala. I sautéed mushrooms in some olive oil and garlic then poured in some marsala to deglaze the pan before I added some chicken broth and butter. And as simple as that, I had a marsala sauce. The wine was simply one of the ingredients. All I had to do was open the bottle and pour some in.

But it didn’t stop there

Given my success with marsala wine, I decided to start paying closer attention to ingredients listed on restaurant menus. I came to realize that many of my favorite restaurant pasta dishes listed white wine. So I tried those recipes at home and discovered that white wine with melted butter, garlic and olive oil, is flavor magic. I use that combination a lot!

Sherry moved into my kitchen cabinet when I was tackling a Newburg sauce for seafood. I found once again that the “secret” ingredient that gave that sauce it’s distinctive flavor was sherry wine.

Wine is very forgiving. Because the alcohol evaporates during cooking you don’t have to worry too much about experimenting with it. You might get more or less of the flavor of the wine if you are working with a creation of your own rather than a recipe, but your dish won’t be inedible. Going back to our comparison to vanilla, a little more of a good thing isn’t bad.

Learning to cook in my day

All my experimenting with using wine in cooking was before there was an “internet”. So how did people learn to cook before YouTube and Food Network? Maybe from your mother, or grandmother. But if someone wanted to learn more about the culinary arts back then, we had Julia Child on PBS. She started it all as far as cooking shows go. Having cooking instruction on TV by watching a skilled chef make a recipe, started with her. With the success of her show came other cooking shows on PBS. And we all know how it grew from there.

I loved watching Julia Child. And she used wine! She would pop the cork on a bottle of wine and recklessly start pouring wine into the recipe she was making. There was no measuring cup involved. It was open and pour. And you just know it came out perfect, it was Julia Child!

French recipes often call for wine as an ingredient. French vineyards, French wines, Julia Child and French cooking. They all go hand in hand.

There’s a strange feeling that happens when you start using wine in your cooking. When I pour wine into the pot, pan or skillet as I cook, it gives me a bit of a thrill.

A Julia Child tip remembered

Unless you drink a lot of wine yourself you probably don’t have an opened bottle of white wine hanging around to experiment with. And if you do have an unopened bottle, you probably don’t want to open it to use 1/4 cup in a recipe and waste the rest of the bottle (or be forced to drink it😊) . I know that is the obvious dilemma I thought of while pondering trying to use wine in my cooking.

Then I remembered something Julia Child had said in one of her shows about substituting dry vermouth for white wine. I knew vermouth was not always refrigerated because it was lined up with other liquors at bars. It is a popular mixer for manhattans.

Using dry vermouth instead of white wine

Vermouth is highly recommended by those in the know, as a substitute for white wine in cooking. Why vermouth? Vermouth is a fortified wine, meaning it has distilled alcohol added and that gives it some shelf life.

Dry vermouth is relatively inexpensive. It has a twist off top, no cork. And it can be stored in my kitchen cabinet for long periods of time. I always have it on hand. It’s always been my go to and it works great for me.

Other common wines used in cooking

It may not be a coincidence that most other wines commonly called for in recipes are also fortified. Those wines are marsala, sherry, madeira, and port.

While I was working on this post I did a little research on the shelf life of wines and while much of the information confirmed that fortified wines lasted longer after opening, most articles said you should refrigerate it and use it within the next few weeks. Well, I have had vermouth, sherry and marsala on my shelf unrefrigerated for many months and still used it. And they have been fine to cook with. There may be some difference in the quality if I wanted to drink it, but I can’t taste any difference in my cooking.

So I asked a real expert, a chef. I told him about using vermouth and storing it on the shelf for months and asked him how restaurant kitchens store their vermouth. They do not refrigerate it. He kind of chuckled and said Julia Child’s tip for substituting vermouth for white wine was no doubt all about the shelf life.

He also told me that the other fortified wines used in the kitchen were stored the same way.

I have to say, for me experimenting with using vermouth (white wine) has been easier than incorporating sherry or marsala into one of my own creations. That’s probably because a lot of my dinner recipes have garlic and olive oil or butter and the pairing of garlic, olive oil and vermouth is just perfect. Also, vermouth works in seamlessly with a tomato sauce and I make a lot of meals with tomato based sauces.

There seems to be a more potent flavor to sherry and marsala. So if I am adding them to a recipe I will usually be trying to mimic a meal I have had elsewhere, or I am using a recipe.

I haven’t tried using the other fortified wines, madeira and port in my cooking, yet 😉.

Using bottles called cooking wines

And now I am going to make a statement that is going to make a talented chef cringe.

If you want to try cooking with wine and you don’t normally have any around, the grocery store has cooking wines. I know that they are frowned on because they have added salt and preservatives. You definitely don’t want to drink it. Most every chef on television will tell you cooking wines are garbage and are not anything like real wine. But I have used them. Especially when I started experimenting with cooking with wine.

In fact, I make a French onion soup that I adapted from a recipe I saw years ago, and it calls for red wine. I have never had a taste for red wine, and I know even less about red wines than I do white wines. So guess what I have in my cabinet. Yup, red cooking wine. And it works. This may be the first and only time you will ever read or hear this because it is strictly taboo but I say there’s no disgrace in using cooking wine. This opinion confirms I am a homemaker just trying to make a nice meal, not a chef.

I will add this note though about using cooking wine from the grocery store. If you get the bug and start using wine in your cooking more often, buying a bottle of real wine will be a lot cheaper in the long run.

Wine transforms the cooking and the cooker

No matter what wine or substitute you use, splashing a little wine in a recipe somehow transforms your mindset momentarily. Out of the blue a little voice says “oh yeah, I’m really cooking now” 👩‍🍳.

I know it sounds corny, but try it. You may be surprised. Especially if you have already found out for yourself the magic wine brings to a dish.

Deglazing with wine

The most common use of wine in savory cooking is deglazing.

When sautéing meats or vegetables a coating of brown develops on the bottom of the pan or skillet. That brown coating on the bottom is called a fond, and it is full of flavor. The fond adds another layer of taste to your dish. To incorporate that flavor, when you are done sautéing you deglaze the pan.

To deglaze you add liquid to your pan and stir/scrape the brown coating so it dissolves it into the liquid. That is done while the pan is still hot. When you deglaze with wine, the alcohol evaporates and you are left with all the flavor in the fond and the wine. Using wine to deglaze is a perfect use of wine.

Are you ready to give it a try?

Here are a couple of really quick dinner recipes that you can start with. They both suggest white wine/dry vermouth as an optional ingredient CLAM SAUCE WITH LINGUINI and SHRIMP WITH PEA PODS. I think both of these are better with the wine than without. The clam sauce recipe is one of Ricky’s regular dinner recipes. He has never cooked with wine but when I made the clam sauce for him with the addition of wine, he liked it better.

We will be adding more recipes that you can cook with wine. But if any of your recipes have olive oil or butter and garlic there’s a really good chance vermouth will add it’s magic touch. Good luck!

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