For the most part, wine labeled as cooking wine is undrinkable on its own and gives food unappetizing flavors. Both professional chefs and savvy home cooks cook only with wines that they would also be happy to drink along with a meal. Although cooking wine has a slight advantage over drinking wine in terms of shelf life, the advantage is negligible.
Noted chef Julia Child said that it's better to omit wine altogether rather than use anything but a good-tasting wine.
Although cooking wine and wine for drinking share some added ingredients, they differ in two main ways:
- Cooking wine contains salt, which gives foods an overly salty or bitter flavor.
- Drinking wine contains more alcohol, which reacts with both heat and certain foods to add complex, deep and new flavors to a dish.
Other ingredients in the two wines sometimes affect flavor and sometimes don't:
- yeast and sugar, added to all true wines to jump-start fermentation
- acidic ingredients, added to some true wines
- bentonite, a kind of clay added to some true wines to help filtration
- sodium metabisulfite, a preservative in both types of wine
- potassium sorbate, a preservative added to cooking wines
- food coloring, added to cooking wines for color and not flavor
The added salt in cooking wine gives it a longer shelf life than drinking wine. Cooking wines come with "use by" dates, but are typically good at room temperature for 3 to 4 months. Drinking wine stays fresh for drinking for about 5 days in the refrigerator, but will still work for cooking for 2 months.
Extend the shelf life for drinking wine to use for cooking by pouring it into an ice cube tray, freezing it, then transferring the cubes to freezer bags. Use the individual cubes for up to 6 months.
For some dishes, a very inexpensive, but real, wine that you might not like in your glass adds just the right flavor to a specific dish while still helping you to stay on a budget. If you want to avoid wine entirely, some other liquids add good flavor without the alcohol. Remember these tips for foods cooked with wine or without:
- Heat, spices, fats and strong food flavors all contribute to the final taste of a dish, making the choice between an expensive and inexpensive wine minor. Daniel Gritzer, Culinary Director at the Serious Eats website, says that most of the time, the cost of wine "makes little to no difference at all."
- Choose dry vermouth for a white cooking wine if you want a wine with a long shelf life, because, like other liquors, it lasts indefinitely, even thought its flavor wanes as a drinking wine after about 6 months in the refrigerator.
- Use red wine vinegar instead of red wine for making sauces by deglazing, and either beef, chicken or vegetable stock for the red wine in stews.
- Use white wine vinegar, lemon juice, chicken stock or vegetable stock when a recipe calls for white wine.