You’re whipping up a classic chicken Marbella, and the Ina Garten recipe you’re following calls for “dry white wine.” You can’t exactly phone the Contessa herself, but come on, Ina: What the heck does that even mean? Pinot grigio is dry…but so is sauvignon blanc. What gives?
Cooking with wine can be totally confusing. While you might be tempted to grab whatever is hanging out in the back of your fridge, it actually does matter what bottle you choose—to an extent. We asked three food professionals (including a master sommelier, a chef and a nutrition director) to find out once and for all how to choose the best white wine for cooking.
1. Choose a white wine with high acidity and light fruit flavors
Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education, suggests a light- to medium-bodied white for cooking. “Unless you’re making a sweet dish, choose a low-alcohol wine with some acidity that’s fresh with a little fruit on the nose.” Her two picks? Pinot grigio from Italy or sauvignon blanc from just about anywhere—with the exception of Australia or New Zealand, where fruit flavors lean toward the tropical. (Tropical chicken Marbella isn’t really what you’re going for, is it?) Instead, you want something with citrusy notes and lots of bright acidity to liven up your dish.
Master Sommelier Devon Broglie, global beverage buyer at Whole Foods Market, agrees: “For dishes that call for ‘dry’ white wines within the recipe, look for wines (both white and red) that are known to have crisp acidity and moderate alcohol.” He recommends avoiding richer, full-bodied wines and oak-aged wines (e.g., oaked Chardonnay) because they have a tendency to overpower the food.
According to Carlos Calderon, brand chef of North Italia, the wine you choose also depends on what you’re making. “If you’re trying for a sweet note, then a Riesling would work,” he says. “If you are looking for a more acidic note to balance the sweetness, then you could use something like a dry Chardonnay.” (Just look for a bottle that’s “unoaked.”)
2. Pick a wine with low to moderate alcohol
In most recipes, wine takes the place of an acid while adding subtle, nuanced flavors. You don’t want to throw a booze bomb into the mix or you’ll risk everything tasting like alcohol. “In most recipes that call for white wine, the goal is to cook off the alcohol,” Beitchman says, “so the flavor shines through.” Lighter-bodied whites generally have lower ABVs anyway. Seek out bottles in the 10 to 12 percent range, like pinot grigio.
3. Think: What grows together goes together
“When possible, I like to use the same thinking as when pairing foods with wines for drinking,” Beitchman says. “Home in on where the wine originated and what foods grow in region the wine hails from. Those flavors have natural affinities whether you’re eating and sipping or cooking them together.”
4. Don’t spend too much…or too little
Before you go browsing the dusty bottom shelf, remember that the wine will reduce during the cooking process. While the alcohol evaporates, the flavors will concentrate. A good rule? If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. “I recommend buying wines for cooking from a wine department in a grocery store or liquor store rather than off the regular grocery aisle,” Broglie says, “because the wines labeled ‘cooking wine’ usually have a ton of added salt.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to go all out on a $100 bottle just for your braised chicken. “The best wines to cook with are inexpensive,” Beitchman tells us, “but that’s not the same as cheap. Use something under $15 a bottle and ideally that you enjoy (or have enjoyed) drinking.” When in doubt, you can always ask the salesperson at your wine store to point you in the right direction.
“A recipe generally doesn’t call for more than a cup of wine, so I like to choose a good, moderately priced ($8 to $12) bottle of Italian pinot grigio or French or Chilean sauvignon blanc,” Broglie says. “That way, I can pour into a pot guilt-free and enjoy a glass or two while it simmers.” Sign us up.
If you’re lucky enough to have recently opened a bottle and have enough wine leftover to use in your recipe, by all means use it up; you’ll do double-duty by avoiding food waste. Beitchman also suggests combining leftovers from multiple bottles into one container for a general cooking wine—just make sure you label your concoction so it doesn’t accidentally get poured by the glass!