This post originally appeared in the April 26, 2021 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
In the year I spent working at a wine shop in New York, there was probably one person per week who would come in and ask for a “cheap bottle of wine just for cooking with”: a white wine for steaming mussels, a red wine to poach some pears for dessert. Each time, though, I did my best to move them toward not just the cheapest, dump-it-down-the-drain-when-you’re-done bottle, but to something that both didn’t break the bank and that they’d also enjoy drinking. Because when a recipe calls for cilantro, we don’t go to the store and pluck the saddest-looking herbs in the bunch. So why are so many of us buying less-than-stellar bottles of wine when we need a little of it to cook with?
There’s only one basic rule when it comes to cooking with wine: Stick to the recipe’s suggested wine. If a recipe calls for dry white wine, don’t substitute with an off-dry; if it calls for red, just use red. (Yes, you can substitute milk with lemon juice or vinegar for buttermilk, but that “just hack it” approach doesn’t really work here.) If the recipe calls for a wine you’re not familiar with, ask the person at the shop where it falls on an acidic scale, since something with higher acid will give you a bit more tartness; similarly, sweet wine will make the final dish a touch sweet.
Once you nail down the style, cooking with higher-quality wine famously won’t make much of a difference in the end product. The flavors and aromas bursting from wine will pretty much cook off and get masked by the other ingredients, so it’s true that a pricey bottle won’t make the red wine glaze on the chocolate cake more delicious, or the wine-steamed mussels more inviting, in any memorable way. But we shouldn’t be thinking of buying a bottle for cooking as separate from a bottle we’d otherwise joyfully sip from; don’t let wine as a recipe ingredient make you forget that wine is first and foremost to be drunk. Unless you don’t drink wine and the rest of the bottle would actually go to waste, this reasoning for buying cheap wine for cooking should just go out the window.
Instead, the best bet is to buy or choose a bottle of wine you actually like that fits into what the recipe calls for, use the quarter-cup needed to make that delicious braised brisket, and drink the rest of it while you’re cooking, while you’re eating, or over the next day or two with another dish — make sure to keep it corked and in the fridge if you go this last route. If you’re early in the process of discovering the wines you enjoy drinking, ask someone at your local wine shop what they might recommend based on your liking off-dry riesling or light-bodied reds, or that you loved a recent acid-charged bottle.
So unless you’re making several recipes in the span of three-ish days that call for enough wine to add up to one fully cooked-with, not-drunk bottle, stop buying shitty wine to cook with. Wine is to be chilled and sipped and enjoyed, no matter what its application.
P.S. Want someone to take even more of the wine guesswork off your hands? Each month the wines in Eater Wine Club are curated by a wine pro from a beloved restaurant or bar and delivered straight to your door.