Do you remember your first bite of linguine with white wine clam sauce, lobster bisque with sherry, or savory chicken Marsala? Cooking with white wine brings balance, fruit, and acidity to so many of our favorite recipes. Once you move past grocery store "cooking wine" (and I strongly advise you to do so!) and introduce even moderately priced white wine into the equation (leave that $40 Chardonnay in the wine fridge), your possibilities and cooking style expand exponentially.
Here are five white wines that are each wonderful for cooking in their own way.
The 5 Best Styles of White Wine to Cook With
By far, the most versatile style of wine to cook with is a dry, crisp white wine. Rich, oaky whites can become bitter during the cooking process, while sweeter whites may caramelize during deglazing or add unwanted sweetness to certain dishes.
As wine cooks, it becomes an integrated part of the whole dish, and the subtle nuances are almost always lost; therefore, a high-quality wine is only appropriately used to finish a dish, where it will be the featured component. Unless that is the case, choose a moderately priced, quaffable white wine, and spend your extra money on quality ingredients instead.
1. Crisp White Wine (Such as Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc & Unoaked Chardonnay)
This is your go-to category. If possible, choose a wine that has a moderate alcohol content (ideally between 10 and 13 percent) and generous acidity. Why? Highly alcoholic wines may take longer to reduce and often do not have the necessary acidity, which is what adds the bright, tenderizing effects we're after.
My three favorite grape varietals for cooking are Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and unoaked Chardonnay. Pinot Grigio is the most neutral of the three, which makes it the most versatile. Sauvignon Blanc provides racy acidity, which is particularly delicious in seafood dishes or with sauces utilizing heavy cream. Chardonnay contributes the most richness of the three.
I know it seems counterintuitive, but avoid purchasing wines labeled "cooking wines," as they often contain salt and other additives. In general, choose unoaked, dry, medium-bodied white wines. In a pinch, you can always substitute a dry vermouth. Bonus? While slightly more expensive, the vermouth has a longer shelf life, which makes it a great option for those who only imbibe occasionally.
5 Very Drinkable Crisp, Dry Whites to Cook With
- Duck Pond Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon, $15
- Gabbiano Pinot Grigio della Venezie IGT, Italy, $8
- Black Box Sauvignon Blanc Valle Central, Chile, $15 (this is a 3-liter box, which represents an average $3.75 per bottle)
- Toad Hollow, Chardonnay, Mendocino County, California, $14
- Mouton Cadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, France, $9
2. Dry Sherry
Like Faith, I have a bottle of this in my kitchen at all times. Just this evening, I finished a pot of chicken and cauliflower soup with a dash of sherry, and it brightened the soup and added another layer of depth and dimension. Sherry is versatile — it is great for deglazing, brings depth to a cream sauce, and is brilliant alongside appetizers like oysters.
My Pick for Sherry to Cook With
- Taylor Wine Company Dry Sherry, New York, $7
3. Dry Marsala
Although delicious in a classic chicken or veal Marsala, you should branch out and try incorporating this complex, dry wine in braised preparations. My personal favorite way to use Marsala wine is in the decadent Italian dessert zabaglione.
My Pick for Marsala to Cook With
- Cantine Florio Fine Marsala Dry, Sicily, Italy, $13
4. Sparkling Wine
Of course, sparkling wine is perfectly suited for a Champagne vinaigrette or a sorbet, but it is a great substitute for dry, white wine in beurre blanc. The bubbles dissipate when cooked, so this is a great opportunity to use up any leftover bubbly after a party (not that this is ever an issue at my house!).
My Pick for Sparkling Wine to Cook With
- Poema Cava, Brut, Penedés, Spain, $12
5. Dry Madeira
Produced in four distinct styles, Madeira is a Portuguese fortified wine from the islands of Madeira. Choose "Sercial," a dry style that doubles as a refreshing aperitif. Use Madeira in a sauce for classic Beef Wellington, as a savory addition to gravy, or as a substitute for Sherry in virtually any recipe.
My Pick for Madeira to Cook With
- Cossart Gordon & Co. 5 Year Old Sercial Madeira, Portugal, $22
What If I Don't Want to Use Alcohol?
There are a number of alcohol-free options you can use instead that still lend flavor to whatever you're cooking. For something the almost mimics wine, try verjus, which is the pressed juice of unripened grapes, or Vin Sante, which is made from unfermented grapes. Beyond these, good ol' chicken or vegetable stock, enhanced with a dash of lemon or vinegar, is a great choice that you likely already have on hand.