The Frontal Cortex

Don’t Waste Good Wine on Food

I used to work in a restaurant where we served wild salmon with a Barolo sauce. (This was back when drinking red wine with fish was still very au courant.) Needless to say, the chef wasn’t wasting real Barolo on a wine reduction. Instead, we used some of the generic plonk you buy in two gallon jugs. It wasn’t Gallo Hearty Burgundy, but it wasn’t that much better, either. The chef actually swore that the cheap wine, with its sweetish edge, actually made superior sauces.

So I wasn’t surprised to read this:

Two weeks ago I set out to cook with some particularly unappealing wines and promised to taste the results with an open mind. Then I went to the other extreme, cooking with wines that I love (and that are not necessarily cheap) to see how they would hold up in the saucepan.

After cooking four dishes with at least three different wines, I can say that cooking is a great equalizer.

I whisked several beurre blancs — the classic white wine and butter emulsion — pouring in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc with a perfume of Club Med piña coladas, an overly sweet German riesling and a California chardonnay so oaky it tasted as if it had been aged in a box of No. 2 pencils.

Although the wines themselves were unpleasant, all the finished sauces tasted just the way they should have: of butter and shallots, with a gentle rasp of acidity from the wine to emphasize the richness. There were minor variations — the riesling version was slightly sweet — but all of them were much tastier than I had expected.

I think this also makes scientific sense. It’s not like there’s a huge chemical difference between a Barolo and two buck chuck. They are both made of rotten grapes and alcohol. What does distinguish a fine wine from a bad wine is that ineffable last bit of chemistry, the specific volatile odors that coalesce in the glass. These compounds are a minor part of the overall chemical composition, but a huge part of the sensory experience.

But when we cook with wine, those volatile compounds are evaporated into steam. We boil away the very chemicals that make a Barolo or Burgundy or even nice Beaujolais special. What we leave behind is the generic matter of every wine: a little bit of acid, a touch of residual sugar, and some tannic structure. So don’t waste your money braising with Barolo or making a souffle with Sauternes. Cook with plonk.

Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 21, 2007

    I used to work in a restaurant where we served wild salmon with a Barolo sauce. (This was back when drinking red wine with fish was still very au courant.) Needless to say, the chef wasn’t wasting real Barolo on a wine reduction.

    Um, isn’t that dishonest?

  2. #2 Jonah
    March 21, 2007

    Dishonest and ubiquitous. I can guarantee you that the vast majority of restaurants advertising the use of a fancy wine as an ingredient – a barolo risotto, a Champagne sauce, etc. – don’t actually use that wine as an ingredient. Instead, they use some generic alternative, which is practically indistinguishible and much, much cheaper.

  3. #3 natural cynic
    March 21, 2007

    …and it saves some more of the good stuff for imbibing properly.

  4. #4 Left_Wing_Fox
    March 21, 2007

    The only big advantage to using a drinkable wine when cooking is to be able to drink the rest of it. 🙂

    Two Buck Chuck was the best friend I had in the kitchen while in California. Although my first time buying a cheap cooking wine in America, I almost made the mistake of buying “Wild Irish Rose” for cooking.

    Knowing what I know now about “Fortified Wines” I am now very glad I didn’t. =/

  5. #5 rugosa
    March 24, 2007

    The author of the article makes clear that when Julia uttered her dictum, inexpensive but decent wine was almost unavailable in the US. Today’s $7.99 bottle may not be very good compared to the $50 bottle, but is nowhere near the acid-and-soda-pop stuff from the 60s and 70s. Some wines from the lower price ranges, such as inexpensive California wines, strive for uniformity rather than all those ineffable effects of weather and terroir. Makes it easy to settle on the brands and types that suit your cooking.

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