First rule of cooking with wine: Make sure you like to drink it

Aug 31, 2015 by Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

The whole idea of cooking a really great dish is to build a flavor profile, one that the guests onboard will love. Chefs know how to create layer upon layer of flavors in foods using ingredients and techniques such as basting, injecting, and marinades.

But what about adding wine to the mix? Is it possible to create a great flavor profile from one simple bottle?

Yes it is, but it is also possible to destroy that wonderful flavor profile in one shot. Wine can elevate a dish to new levels, or it can do the opposite. It is based on the choice of wine for that particular dish, whether it is a great pairing for the food and how you use it.

I have had flops with meals because I chose the wine we had on hand to deglaze a pan or to make a sauce. And I am not even talking about cooking wine found in grocery stores, which is made of cheap wine and food coloring.

No, I have used good wine, expensive wine in cooking and still flopped, because it wasn’t the right kind. Not every bottle of wine is a good wine to use in cooking. The cost of the wine isn’t the best indicator either. I have used both $10 wines and $100 French wines to cook and deglaze a pan. Believe it or not, most of those that flopped were the more expensive variety. They simply could not carry their flavor profile and ended up being bitter or too salty in the end.

The best way to pick a wine to cook with is to the tried and true drink theory: Would you drink and enjoy this wine with this meal? Select a wine that will compliment the ingredients in your dish and even enhance them.

Older wines, for example, should be paired with simple dishes because they tend to be more delicate in taste and balance. A truly simple course lets an older wine’s flavor and delicate balance come through.

Wine onboard

Wine onboard

And, believe it or not, pinot noir pairs beautifully with salmon, chicken and lamb. This varietal red grape is one of the best out there and it is hardly ever blended like the cabernet sauvignon is.

When selecting a wine to cook with, remember these basics:

Dry red wines are best used for wine reduction sauces, such as in beef bourguignonne.

Dry whites are best suited for deglazing a pan, in cream sauces, and in soups.

Oxidized wines and dry nutty wines taste such as Madeira, sherry, Marsala or vermouth are meant to accentuate the dish, not overpower it. They add a full bodied, richer taste to the dish so don’t get carried away when making Veal Marsala or adding sherry in a shrimp bisque.

Sweet oxidized wines include tawny port, cream sherry and others. These are aged 10 years or more. I like to reduce these for thickness and use them over ice creams like a syrup.

Sweet fortified red wine is really port. Vintage ports are perfect to cook with because they offer a sweet finish once reduced and a thick syrupy consistency. I love to poach pears and reduce a true vintage port to a thick syrup and serve them together.

Sweet white wines such as Sauternes is also perfect for poaching pears, fruit and pairing with seafood.

There’s more to cooking with wine then deglazing a pan, though.

  1. Use it as an alternative liquid in cooking or a terrific marinade for meat. I have a great marinade for flank steak and the best part about it is that what gives the steak its flavor is not the soy sauce or ginger but the wine. Be sure to marinate meat at room temperature. Wine helps to tenderize the meat.

Wine is not just for meat, either. Marinate veggies, too, before you saute them. Heat the wine first, though, to create moisture.

  1. Wine, added at the last minute, gives a great flavor to a dish such as flambe or dessert sauce.
  2. Wine can be used instead of water to create moisture in the dish. Be sure to heat the wine before you add the food, though, and this prepares the pan as well.
  3. Use wine with butter to create a broth for basting a chicken or turkey. This is what I do to my Thanksgiving turkey each year.

The key is selecting the right sort of wine. Does it pair well with the dish you are going to make? Do some research prior to making the dish. Too many people reach for the California chardonnay in making a sauce for chicken or seafood. I suggest skipping the ho-hum chardonnay with its heavy, oaky taste and go with a light sauvignon blanc. It is typically lighter than chardonnay and creates a smooth finish in a sauce for poultry, seafood and salads.

Pay attention to the quantity you use, too. Just because a recipe calls for one cup doesn’t mean that two cups are in order. When you use it to deglaze a pan or in a sauce or stew, remember that if you use too much, you can’t take it back. You can always add more if you find you need more in the dish. So start slowly. On the flip side, not enough won’t give you the flavor you want your dish to have.

One caveat: If you have a guest onboard who doesn’t drink or has an intolerance to alcohol, be careful using wine in cooking. Some of the alcohol and sulfates cook off, leaving behind its fragrant aromas. But if the wine is only in the dish a short time, not all of the alcohol will burn off. And cooking the sauce longer to cook off the wine might ruin your sauce.

We haven’t even discussed using wine in desserts such as over ice cream. Do some research and experiment with wine in your cooking. It doesn’t just have to be a glass to be enjoyed.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Contact her through




About Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years.

View all posts by Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson →