If you’re a mediocre cook, cooking with wine is maybe the single easiest thing you can do to make yourself look 100 times more impressive. Making pasta with butter and cheese again? Why not add some white wine to that butter, Mr. Rockefeller? If you’re roasting a pork loin, why not use some wine to make a gravy with those pan drippings? There are tons of options, but of course they all raise the question — what the hell wine do you use?
If your wine-buying technique is something like “cheap + cool label = getting drunk,” paying attention to pairing flavors and wine types might be a little daunting. Or, there’s that chaotic moment when you see your recipe gives the oh-so helpful “dry white wine” (or even worse, just “white wine”) as the only instruction of what you should be looking for. And until the people writing recipes decide to be a little more descriptive, you’re stuck staring at that box of Franzia in your fridge wondering if anyone will notice.
Chef Tony Chittum of Iron Gate in Washington DC, says the best thing you can do is just choose a wine you normally enjoy drinking, “because chances are, you won't be using the whole bottle. Flavors are intensified when reduced, so be careful of overly sweet, peppery, acidic wines.” So obviously, if you normally enjoy drinking Manischewitz, the above advice doesn’t apply. But let’s say you don’t really drink wine, and are still tasked with finding one suitable to cook with. Brent Kroll, Iron Gate’s wine director, says you can’t go wrong with a white from Italy if you’re looking for something dry, so memorize where those can be found in your wine shop and just beeline there.
Wine jargon bonus round: Kroll said to avoid a wine where “typicity is no residual sugar,” and I stared blankly at my computer for about five minutes. Typicity is basically a term for a tautologically tasting wine — like a very Chardonnay-y Chardonnay or a Merlot-y Merlot. Residual sugar is the term for any grape sugars that don’t get eaten up during the fermenting process. Wines like Rieslings, White Zinfandels and Moscatos typically have a lot of residual sugar. Now you can talk like someone who knows about wine!
One big no-no is using “cooking wine,” that stuff you get in the vinegar aisle, which Chef Chittum had never even heard of. It’s usually mixed with salt and food coloring, and though it can be kept open in your pantry for a long time, it’s probably gross to taste. A lot of people tend to go for cooking wine because it’s cheap, but Chittum and Kroll both agree that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a good bottle of wine. “There are plenty of reasonably priced wines on the market that will work great with food,” says Chittum. Okay, so maybe you want to splurge for a little more than the two-buck Chuck, but there’s no point in buying a $100 bottle if you’re just going to dump half of it over a pan of chicken thighs.
Lastly, what if there’s no wine around? I know, I’d never wish this on anyone, but Chef Chittum says there are lots of ways to improvise. “I sometimes substitute a lager for a dry white wine,” he says, “Hard cider works if you're looking for some fruity acidity, and in a pinch any liquid can be used to deglaze, and you can add a touch of lemon juice later to balance the flavors.” No matter what, remember that few recipes call for an entire bottle of wine, so you’re more than likely to have some leftover — or just around to drink while cooking.