I write articles for my hometown newspaper. The "Ask the Chef" question for the January issue coming up has to do with cooking with and drinking wine.
Here was my answer:
Thanks for your question. A very timely subject indeed.
There is much discussion and contradictory information out there on what wine to drink with what food and what wine to cook with.
Basically, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.
The grocery store shelves are filled with so called cooking wines that can impart some pretty off flavors.
One thing to be aware of when cooking with wine is that the alcohol in the wine does not “cook out” as one would have you believe. The amounts decrease with time and cooking but there will always be some residue remaining however small. Those recipes that say otherwise are perhaps not up to date on that latest information available.
Pairing wines to food can be a daunting task but with a few guidelines under your belt you can successfully navigate the tastes and textures to match what you are serving.
Basically wine flavors are derived from specific components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin and alcohol.
Foods also have flavor components, such as fat, acid, salt, sugar and bitter. The most successful food and wine pairings feature complementary components, richness and textures.
There are a few elements that make both red wine and white wine pairings work, and they’re derived from characteristics of the food and how they mingle with those of the wine. These are: fat, acid, salt, sweetness, bitterness and texture.
Understanding these elements allows one to be able to choose those wines that complement the flavors in the food they are eating.
There are some basic guidelines for pairing food with wine but it really boils down to what YOU like regardless of those who would argue otherwise.
The three most important rules when it comes to wine-and-food pairing are:
2. Look for Balance
- Drink and Eat What You Like
Choose a wine that you would want to drink by itself, rather than hoping a food match will improve a wine made in a style you don’t like. That way, even if the pairing isn’t perfect, you will still enjoy what you’re drinking; at worst, you might need a sip of water or bite of bread between the dish and the glass. The same holds true for the food: After all, if you detest liver, there is no wine pairing with it on earth that will work for you.
Consider the weight—or body, or richness—of both the food and the wine. The wine and the dish should be equal partners, with neither overwhelming the other. If you balance the two by weight, you raise the odds dramatically that the pairing will succeed. This is the secret behind many classic wine-and-food matches.
There’s a fair amount of instinct to this. Hearty food needs a hearty wine. Cabernet Sauvignon complements grilled lamb chops because they’re equally vigorous, but the dish would run roughshod over a crisp white wine. In contrast, a light Soave washes down a subtly flavored poached fish because they are equals in delicacy.
How do you determine weight? For the food, fat—including what comes from the cooking method and the sauce—is the main contributor. (Note how a salad with blue cheese dressing feels heavier than one with citrus vinaigrette, as does fried chicken versus poached.)
For a wine, you can get clues from the color, grape variety and alcohol level, along with the winemaking techniques and the region’s climate. (Wines with less than 12 percent alcohol tend to be lighter-bodied; those with more than 14 percent are heavier.) If you’re not familiar with a wine, consult our lists below.
3. Match the Wine to the Most Prominent Element in the Dish
This is critical to fine-tuning wine pairings. Identify the dominant character; more often it is the sauce, seasonings or cooking method, rather than the main ingredient. Consider two different chicken dishes: Chicken Marsala, with its browned surface and a sauce of dark wine and mushrooms, versus a chicken breast poached in a creamy lemon sauce. The caramelized, earthy flavors of the former tilt it toward a soft, supple red, while the simplicity and citrus flavors of the latter call for a fresh white.
Here's a small chart showing a few wine and food match-ups.
When it comes to food and wine pairings, there are those who carelessly match any dish with any libation and those who painstakingly try to balance the flavors of the food with the perfect wine. No matter where you land on the spectrum, there are some dishes that remain challenging (potluck, anyone?), so having knowledge of ways to properly pair wine with your food can truly intensify the enjoyment of eating.
Remember, if you have a ingredient in your spice cabinet you know nothing about or have a culinary question you’ve always wanted to know the answer to ‘Ask the Chef.’
Until next month keep on cooking and Bon Appetit.