It may seem blasphemous to pour out some of your favorite bottles of red into a skillet, saucepan or Instant Pot for at-home cooking, but it’s also a necessary step if you want to impart flavor and richness into sauces or acidity into proteins that need tenderizing.
Red wine is a wonderful addition to many recipes, though you’ll undoubtedly want to use it sparingly and with some basic knowledge to ensure that your dishes don’t end up in the trash can.
What’s the Difference Between Cooking with Red Wine and White Wine?
A difference in flavor, of course, is a no-brainer when it comes to cooking with both varieties. White wines are bright and crisp while most reds are bold and hearty, meaning they can stand up to other big flavors. This is why white wine is frequently incorporated into light sauces and seafood while reds work fantastically with red meats and stews.
Red wine is also significantly higher in tannins — a naturally occurring compound from grape skins, seeds, and stems that give it a stronger, more full-bodied taste. When cooked, it’s extremely easy for these tannins to turn bitter, so red wine is ideal for any dish that calls for low and slow cooking with ingredients and spices that already pack a punch.
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To make things as easy as possible, you can find the best red wines for cooking in what we like to call the “holy trinity:” cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and merlot. Don’t break the bank on a bottle more than $25, avoid anything labeled “cooking wine” (they’re typically full of preservatives, sugar and salt), and check out when to use each varietal below.
Oh, and be sure to pour out any remaining wine and enjoy it — the best part of cooking with red wine is obviously to drink it. Cheers!
Your cab is definitely going to be the most bold option on this list, and now that cold weather has arrived and steaks and hearty stews will take center stage, it only makes sense to lead with it. Use cabernet sauvignon to braise and break down meats like brisket, steak, and short ribs, but avoid mixing it directly into sauces — its richness and notes of black fruits and cocoa are just too overpowering for most dishes.
One of our favorite bottles: Radley & Finch Flyin’ French Cabernet Sauvignon, $10.99
Pinot noir is undoubtedly one of your safest bets with its versatility, enhancing anything from meats and stews to seafood and poultry. Like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir is also aged in oak barrels, but its mouthfeel and taste is a bit more silky and earthy (as opposed to spicy and robust), making it a more well-rounded addition that never feels too heavy. It’s not going to be the one that makes a statement, but its beloved cherry and raspberry flavors will bring an incredible level of jam-forward sweetness that you won’t find with many other reds.
One of our favorite bottles: Josephine Dubois Grande Reserve Pinot Noir, $19.99
The lightest of the bunch (and be sure to take that into consideration when shopping, as there are more full-bodied, complex options), most merlot is an ideal red wine for sauces and reductions — they are fruity and low on bitter tannins, making them lovely finishing notes to marinaras and glazes for your filets. You can certainly opt for types that are as full-bodied as a cabernet, but the more balanced and approachable bottles really shine when hints of flowers and ripe berries can subtly elevate the most refined of dishes.
One of our favorite bottles: Pedroncelli Bench Vineyards Merlot, $16.99
Additional Tips for Cooking with Red Wine
We mentioned keeping the price low and avoiding “cooking wines” altogether, but here are a few more quick tips to take into consideration while planning your next dinner menu:
- Really avoid anything more full-bodied than cabernet sauvignon. Wines like malbec, syrah and zinfandel can be great to guzzle on their own, but they’re bound to make any dish bitter and practically inedible when exposed to heat.
- Don’t use old wine. Unfortunately, the oxidation process makes wine sour after a few days, and that same taste will translate in your food. As with white wine, only cook with bottles you’d actually drink at that very moment!
- Always cook low and slow. This is imperative with any kind of wine, as quick, high heat will undoubtedly lead to bitterness or sourness that will ruin an entire meal. You should also aim to keep your alcohol content low (around 10 to 13 percent) to reduce it quicker, though this isn’t as important if you’re roasting something for hours in a device like a slow cooker.