Wine is often served in tandem with meals. It works to complement and enhance the flavors of the foods that people are eating, but have you ever wondered why wine is used in the actual cooking process? It turns out that wine’s various flavors can have a marked influence on preparing recipes as well.
Obviously, wine contains alcohol, which carries little flavor on its own. However, its presence brings out the tastes of ingredients in your recipe by reacting with their molecules. Cooking alcohol out of wine also works to dissolve fats and is a much more effective flavor enhancer than are water, broth or even olive oil. It is important to burn most of the alcohol away during the cooking process. If too much of it remains, it will add a boozy overtone. To be sure you have cooked off enough of it, add the wine to your sauce and then keep it under the heat until it reduces in quantity by about half. This will leave a flavorful, more highly concentrated sauce that showcases the flavors you are looking to enhance.
Wines have varying levels of acidity depending on the kind of grapes that are used to make them. When cooking with verjus wine, it is important to always keep in mind why you are adding it as opposed to simply pouring in water or broth. If you are adding wine to your zesty tomato sauce, for instance, you want to look for a robust match such as a Chianti since the sangiovese grape with which it is made is bold and acidic enough in its own right to enhance, not drown out, the flavor.
When a wine is high in tannins, we feel it via a drying sensation on the tongue. Tannins come from the skins, stems and seeds of the grape from which the wine is made. Thinner-skinned grapes like pinot noir produce wines with fewer tannins than do thicker-skinned varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, and red wines are higher in tannins than are whites.
The tannin level in a wine affects how it will behave during the cooking process. For example, higher-tannin wines work well with protein-rich meat dishes. This is because as the sauce reduces, the flavor of the tannins that comes to the fore can be neutralized by the proteins in the meat. By contrast, pairing a robust Cabernet Sauvignon with a light vegetarian recipe might turn into a taste disaster when the tannin astringency wins out over the more delicate tastes in the preparation.
It is all too easy to be overwhelmed by the world of wines. Considering that many people spend a lifetime collecting and making careers out of them, it’s no wonder that many of us are intimidated. This fear makes it hard to decide which wines to buy, which to cook with and which to pair with the specific dishes that we are serving. One excellent way to learn more about the fascinating global phenomenon of wine’s seemingly infinite colors and tastes is to join a wine of the month club. Once you do, you will be treated every 30 days or so to a new selection that might come from California, Italy, Australia, Chile or China. The key is to enjoy the bounty of tastes and options that the world’s wines can bring to your recipes and your table.