Wine's complexity of flavors and aromas is one reason it works so well as an ingredient for cooking.
The Flavor Factors
Alcohol itself doesn't add flavor to dishes so much as it helps release flavor molecules in foods and assists in dissolving fats, allowing ingredients to reveal their own unique flavors in ways that other liquids (like water or broth) or fats (like butter and olive oil) cannot.
When adding wine to a sauce, make sure you allow most of the alcohol to cook off; otherwise, the sauce may have a harsh, slightly boozy taste. How do you know when enough is enough? After adding the wine, cook the sauce uncovered until it reduces by about half. As the alcohol burns away, the flavor of the sauce will concentrate, becoming more delicious.
Tannins come from the grape's skins, stems, and seeds. Thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, produce more tannic wines than thinner-skinned varietals like Pinot Noir. And red wines have more tannin than whites. This is because the juice of red grapes spends more time swimming around with their skins than white grapes whose juice is separated from the skins soon after pressing. The juice of white grapes just doesn't hang out with its skins long enough to pick up tannins.
Tannins affect the texture of a wine. We often experience them in the mouth as a drying sensation, rather than as a specific taste. In a young red wine with lots of tannin, they can come across as astringent and pucker-inducing, but the tannins will mellow with age, and are, in fact, one of the compounds that allows red wines to age gracefully.
How do tannins affect our eating experience? Well, let's take Cabernet Sauvignon. Beef dishes are a classic pairing partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. In large part, it's because Cabernet Sauvignon is a highly tannic wine. The tannins in the wine become attracted to the proteins in the meat rather than the proteins in your saliva, which makes the wine seem less astringent, a softer experience in your mouth.
When you make a pan sauce with Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins become concentrated as the sauce reduces. If the sauce does not also contain enough protein and fat to handle those tannins, the end result could be a sauce that is a bit astringent for your liking. A vegetarian sauce, then, will probably work better with a less tannic red wine, like Pinot Noir, or a white wine.
Have you ever paired a tomato sauce with a red wine like Merlot? The acid in the tomatoes can burn right through the wine, making it seem flat. That's because Merlot, which is typically on the low end in acid, can't compete with the acid in the tomatoes. Chianti Classico , on the other hand, is a terrific choice for tomato-based pasta dishes: the sangiovese grape (the main grape in Chianti) has enough acid to stand up to the acid in the tomato sauce.
Of course, all wines have acid. So when cooking with wine, use nonreactive pans and skillets (like those made from stainless steel or enameled cast iron) to avoid discoloration when the acid hits the pan.
Flavors and Aromas
When you're making a dish that has one or two dominant flavors, it's worth thinking about wines that share those basic taste characteristics. Pinot Noir, for example, particularly Pinot Noir from Burgundy, is known for having flavors and aromas of mushrooms; it might pair up nicely with a dish that features lots of fresh, sauteed mushrooms. A bright dish with a healthy splash of citrus might respond well to a wine with a nice, bright citrus flavor--like Sauvignon Blanc. A cream sauce with shrimp will likely match up well with a creamy, buttery Chardonnay.
Preserve Your Cooking Wine
Once you uncork a bottle of wine, and oxygen is introduced into the scene, the wine slowly begins to change. No matter how good or expensive the wine was to begin with, it will eventually turn to vinegar.
Bear that in mind when a recipe calls for wine. It's easy to reach for that half-full bottle you've kept in the cupboard for a month. But before you pour it into the pan, take a moment to determine its condition. Cooking with this wine could make the dish taste sour.
One way to make the wine last a bit longer is to refrigerate it. The cold climate will slow the chemical changes that are conspiring to turn your wine to vinegar. Another method is to transfer the leftover wine into a smaller bottle. This helps because a smaller bottle will have less air in it. You can also buy fancy vacuum contraptions that suck the air out of the bottle. An even easier solution, of course, is to drink the wine before it goes bad!
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