A dry white wine.” This is what recipes often call for—not Sauvignon Blanc, not Pinot Grigio, but “a dry white wine.” But what does that mean, exactly? What should you look for when cooking with wine, and how much should you spend? Should you be cooking with the same wine you’re drinking? We asked Braithe Tidwell, wine director at Brennan’s in New Orleans, to help us work toward a general theory of how to cook with wine.
What grows together, goes together
This is a basic rule of wine pairing that Tidwell says extends to cooking. Making an Italian dish? Go with an Italian wine. French? Same. If you’re cooking with local ingredients and are fortunate enough to live in a wine region, use the local stuff.
Cook with what you’d drink (sometimes)
Tidwell says you can’t go wrong cooking with the same wine you’d pair with a dish, especially if the recipe only calls for a small amount. “If I’m going to keep this wine going with my entrée when I’m eating, maybe I’ll get something in a mid-tier price range, that I can use to cook with and then also serve with dinner.” That said, if you’re using more – say a whole bottle in a braise – budget is absolutely a factor. She also notes that cooking wines should always complement the ingredients, but that as a sommelier she will often pair contrasting wines with dishes.
Acidity is key
In general, you want cooking wines with high acid, “especially if you’re using cream or butter.” To that end, “Pinot Grigio is a great white wine to have in your pantry. As a go-to it’s generally pretty inexpensive.” For reds, she likes Chianti, which is also reasonably priced. “It’s not going to hurt your budget to have those wines laying around.” Tidwell also recommends Sémillon and red Rhones for French food. On the domestic end, her picks are New York State Rieslings, California Pinot Noir, and Washington State Cabernets.
Not your grandma’s boxed wine
“There’s no shame in getting a box of wine and using it in your cooking, and drinking some, too,” says Tidwell. Boxed wine is getting better every day, and “I’m one of those somms who believes as long as you’re drinking wine you like, you’re doing great. I’ve definitely gotten some boxed wine for Christmas dinner.”
Lightning round recommendations by dish
Tomato Sauce for Pasta: “A zestier, lighter Italian wine, like Chianti.”
Braised beef: “A Nebbiolo from Piedmont with a presence of acid is going to help quite a bit with the braising.
Braised lamb: “A Côtes du Rhône would go really nicely.”
Braised pork: “I like the idea of white wine with pork, a Chardonnay.”
Coq au Vin: “You definitely want to use a Pinot Noir. Burgundy can be expensive, but in this case you might want to get a Côté Bourgogne, which entry level will be around $25, $30.”
Pan Sauce, Steak: “Probably a Syrah, something from the northern Rhone, or a blend.”
Pan Sauce, Pork: “You can use either white or red, which is fun. Either an herbaceous red wine, like a Cab Franc from the Loire Valley, or a Chardonnay, something from California.”
Pan Sauce, Seafood (Shrimp or Scallops): “Sauvignon Blanc, something from Bordeaux.”
Mussels: “I would actually recommend something from Greece, like an Assyrtiko. It’s super inexpensive, you can’t find a ton of it, but it’s really great with seafood.”
Marinade, for Grilling: “Something with high acid, like a Chianti.”
Risotto: “You can go white or red, but I’d probably go white. Something Italian—a Vernaccia is really reasonable and has nice acidity.”
Desserts: “For something like a fruit sauce, Brachetto d’Asti from Piedmont. Or else a ruby Port would be great.”