Think "garbage in, garbage out." Would you use rotten, stinky tomatoes for a marinara sauce or smelly fish for sushi? When you reach for a rancid bottle of wine, you're essentially introducing an equally undesirable component. Quality does make a difference in the end product. But you don't have to spend $50 to find something appropriate to use for a recipe. An $8 jug wine is fine for marinating meat, but don't choose anything too sweet or it might overpower the overall flavor. If you're making a sauce that will define a dish (say, coq au vin), however, use only what you're comfortable drinking. I've often used Yellow Tail Shiraz and Columbia Crest Chardonnay for my recipes.
Why cook with wine? The acids actually transform the composition of food, especially tough meats. They act as a tenderizer, penetrating the fibers and softening proteins to make meat soft to the teeth. Only because of color, chicken and seafood are best marinated in white wine, while either can be used for red meats. But if all you have is red wine and a couple cuts of chicken, then feel free to indulge in purple, yet tasty meat. To achieve the best results, marinate meats for at least two hours in the fridge, and soak seafood no more than one hour because the delicate flesh will actually begin to cook.
Sometimes it's the wine flavor you'd like to emphasize. For instance, most mushrooms are fantastic when sautéed with garlic, butter and a sweet, brawny port wine. But don't overdo it. Too much port and all you'll taste is alcohol, even if you try to boil it all out. A light touch is best, and a few minutes of simmering will mellow any sharp tastes.
Normally, you'd want to use dry wines for savory sauces and marinades, using varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But a sweeter wine like Madeira or late harvest Riesling can add depth to a sauce for gamey meats like duck, and give a dessert sauce some added zing.
So stop yourself before reaching for that dust-encrusted bottle of Merlot, and pour fresh flavor. And be sure to drink a glass while you work.
Mark West 2003 Pinot Noir Central Coast (California). SW = 2. $11.
Smooth, velvet tannins and the characteristic earthy-feet smell of Pinot Noir. Light cherry and blackberries gush.
Laurel Glen 2002 Reds California. SW = 1. $10.
These guys call themselves "wine for the people," and they produce some excellent-quality, value-priced stuff. This one is a gutsy blend of Zinfandel, petite Sirah and Carignan grapes. Huge flavors like roasted cherries, strong coffee and bittersweet chocolate.
The Bishop Riesling 2003 Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (Germany). SW = 3. $10.
Smells like a fresh-cut lime that cleanses your tongue. Light, delicate sweetness makes this a refreshing afternoon delight.
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