Marsala wine comes from a region of the same name in the western part of Sicily, Italy. While chicken and veal Marsala are probably the most famous uses for this wine, you can also use it in other dishes or drink it on its own.
In 1798, Sicilians substituted the rum in a British naval shipment with Marsala. They fortified the wine with brandy to make it last longer and withstand the temperature changes it would undergo during transport. Once the English tasted the concoction, it became popular. During Prohibition in the U.S., people found it less risky to obtain Marsala because the bottles it was stored in made it look like medicine.
You don't need to refrigerate Marsala. It will not go bad or become unsafe to drink or cook with over time, but the flavors do fade. To get the most flavor out of Marsala, use it within three to four months and store it in a dark, cool spot.
The different grape varieties used to make Marsala give it different colors and flavors. It can be found as dry (secco), semisweet (semisecco) or sweet (dolce). Dry Marsala is mostly used in meat and vegetable dishes and for drinking. The sweeter Marsala wines are used mostly in desserts. Marsala is also classified into four different categories, depending on quality and age: fine (aged less than a year), superiore (aged less than two years), superiore riserva (aged four years) and vergine soleras (aged five years).
Marsala can be used in savory dishes such as chicken Marsala, veal Marsala or risotto. If you buy a sweet Marsala, you can use it to make an Italian dessert such as tiramisu or zabaglione. Marsala can also be served as a drink alongside a cheese platter, and it is often offered between courses in a meal.
Be careful when shopping for Marsala. You might find a bottle of something inexpensive that looks like Marsala in the grocery store's condiment aisle, but it has salt and food coloring added and will result in an inferior dish. Instead, look for quality Marsala in the fortified wines section or a specialty wine or gourmet store. Keep in mind this rule of thumb: If you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it.