How to Cook with Wine

Three chefs at Michigan wineries offer their tips

Cooking with wine can do a lot for a dish.

“It softens and enhances [the dish],” says Chris Mushall, chef de cuisine at Chateau Chantal in Traverse City. “It can take a tougher cut of meat and tenderize it. It can also impart flavor that [you’re] trying to impart into the product.”

A well-made wine can also bring out the best in the other ingredients.

“When wines are made correctly, all the flavors that they bring to a dish can complement everything that you’re putting in the dish, as long as you know what you’re doing,” says Nick Buchannon, chef at Black Star Farms’ Hearth & Vine Café in Suttons Bay.

We connected with Mushall, Buchannon, and Leah Moerdyk, events sous chef at Black Star Farms, to get their tips for how to make the most of wine as a cooking ingredient. Here’s what they had to say:

Contrary to popular belief, cheap wine is not always the right choice for cooking.
“The biggest mistake I find is people buying wine that they might not drink and using it because it was less expensive,” Mushall says.

That said, an expensive wine isn’t the definite answer either.
“Less expensive or more expensive doesn’t necessarily dictate anything, honestly. That’s a consumer perception,” Mushall says. “It’s really, ‘What do you like?’ If a $7 Shiraz is what you enjoy, then by all means, go with that Shiraz. If you’ve got the $150 palate and budget to do it, then hey, go for it!”

Moerdyk, in most cases, agrees.

“My rule of thumb is that it doesn’t need to be the best wine ever, but it shouldn’t be something you wouldn’t drink,” she says via email. “For me, the exception to that rule is when using fortified wines like Madeira. I have found no difference in the end product cooking with expensive versus cheap in that case.”

Once you choose your wine, Moerdyk recommends using a nonreactive, high-quality pan, such as a stainless-steel pan.
“With cheaper pans, the acid can start to degrade the coatings that are manufactured on the pan,” she says. “It can discolor sauces and give a metallic taste.”

From here, the chefs have several pointers to bear in mind:

Choose low-acid recipes to balance acidic wines.
“Balancing acid levels in food is important when cooking with wine, both red and white,” Moerdyk says. “Wine has a good amount of acid in it, so when using wine in a recipe, try lessening the amount of acid (lemon, vinegar, etc.) you would use. You can always add more, [but you] can’t take away!”

Burn off as much alcohol as you can.
“Because obviously, you don’t want people getting drunk eating your food,” Buchannon jokes.

Remember that the wine alone will not make the dish.
“Even if you have a really flavorful wine, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add some shallots and thyme,” Buchannon says. “One of the things here that I’ve been helping other people with is learning how to bring body to your dish and not just having one prominent flavor.”

Don’t overdo it on the wine.
You don’t need to use a lot of wine to get its flavor.

“I made chocolate truffles with our Cab Franc, and I used maybe half a cup of red wine and what I would say is 2 quarts’ worth of chocolate, and you can still taste everything in them,” Buchannon says. “You don’t want the wine to overpower the dish; you want everything to complement each other.”

Try cooking with wines that you will also serve with those dishes.
If you sip a wine after taking a bite of a dish that incorporates that wine, the wine’s flavor will be enhanced.

“The goal of that is to elevate the experience of eating and the experience of tasting the wine,” Mushall explains.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prepared the dish, and then we’ll have multiple wines that I think will go with it or that our winemaker thinks will go with it, and we’ll taste, and that’s the only way we can really make sure that it’s a fit,” Mushall says.

One well-circulated rule of cooking with wine is to use reds for heavier dishes, such as rich sauces and red meats, and to use whites for lighter dishes, such as poultry and vegetables. However, Mushall says that Chateau Chantal’s Naughty Red wine goes great with seafood.

“[This convention is] rooted in facts, but as we’ve gotten better and more adept at blending and growing and tasting, we’ve found that not every rule applies all the time,” Mushall says. “There’s always an exception.”

That’s why it’s important to experiment with your dishes and find which wine works best for you and the particular dish you’re making.

“Don’t get pigeonholed into one varietal or one winery or one region, but get out and explore,” Mushall says. “There’s literally a world of viticulture out there.”

Finally, the chefs recommend wines to cook with from their wineries:

Black Star Farms’ Arcturos Cabernet Franc (for Beef Roast or Short Ribs)
“Black Star Farms’ Arcturos Cabernet Franc is one of my absolute most favorite wines to cook with. It is just phenomenal for braising a beef roast or short ribs. It’s one of the lighter reds and has a minerality to it that I love. With the rich beef, they just complement each other so nicely.” —Leah Moerdyk

Black Star Farms’ Red House Red (for Barbecue Sauce)
“A lot of people ask me to sell the barbecue sauce that I make here in-house, and I make that with our Red House Red wine, which is a little lower on the price range, but it’s still a really good wine.” —Nick Buchannon

Black Star Farms’ Pinot Noir (for Briskets)
“I’m about to smoke Pinot Noir briskets for our wine club dinner, and they’re going to be pretty good.” —Nick Buchannon

Chateau Chantal’s Semidry Riesling (for Vinaigrette)
“I often make a semidry Riesling vinaigrette for a summertime salad, and often paired with goat cheese, cherries, onions, candied pecan. So you’ve got some sweet, you’ve got some spicy, you’ve got creamy going on there, and then the wine pairs with the fattiness of the goat cheese and tends to work really well together.” —Chris Mushall

Chateau Chantal’s Malbec (for Red Meats)
“Our Malbec is a great option for anything from steak to barbecue.” —Chris Mushall

Chateau Chantal’s Naughty Line (for Seafood)
“The Naughty White, which is a blend, goes incredibly well with seafood, but then we’ve also got our Naughty Red that goes incredibly well with seafood.” —Chris Mushall

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