Chef John Ash Wine and Food

Pairing wine with food

Most cooks will tell you that adding wine to sauces, marinades, ri­sottos, braises, ragus, broths, the stuck-on browned bits in a sauté pan, and many other foods enhances flavor. If you ask why, they may tell you that the wine’s fruity character or its crisp acidity adds depth and sparkle to a dish. But there’s more to wine than just fruit and acidity. As a cooking agent, wine and other alco­holic beverages work a lot harder than you may think, thanks to alcohol’s amazing ability to extract flavors that would otherwise remain trapped in food.

To start with wine has its own wonderful fla­vors from the grape as well as fermentation.  During fermentation of grape juice, large, bland mole­cules break down into smaller, more flavorful compounds, producing dramatic changes in flavor. Enzymes break big car­bohydrates into sugars. Then yeast and other microorgan­isms ingest these sugars, plus sugars already present in the grape juice, and give off carbon dioxide, alcohol, and all sorts of flavorful byproducts, from organic acids like acetic acid and lactic acid to amino acids. The acidity causes more mole­cular breakdowns, until even­tually the amount of alcohol in the wine reduces the activity of the microorganisms. At some point, the winemaker decides that the wine has the desired flavors, and it’s bottled. Whether you’re drinking it or cooking with it, wine offers a complex mixture of flavorful compounds. 

The alcohol in wine plays an important role.  Some flavor components in foods dissolve in water, and some dissolve in fat. One of the reasons that fat-free foods often taste so boring is that the fat-soluble flavors in the dish remain locked in the food. Even a tiny bit of fat can dis­solve and carry flavors, mak­ing a dish much more flavorful than if it were totally fat-free.  Alcohol, be it in wine, beer, or hard liquor like vodka and bourbon, is a powerful flavor extractor, too. It dissolves not only water and fat-soluble flavors but also flavor compo­nents that neither water nor fat can dissolve. For example, we use alcohol to extract fla­vor from vanilla beans, and the reward is vanilla extract. This ability of alcohol to ex­tract and carry flavors makes it a great asset for cooks. When you splash a few tablespoons of wine into a skillet that was used to sauté meat or vege­tables, you usually scrape up the stuck-on bits of food so they’ll dissolve in the wine. By doing this, you’re not only get­ting the flavors of the wine and of the caramelized browned bits in your dish, you’re also getting some extra flavors that only alcohol can extract.

This may be why vodka, which is relatively weak on fla­vor but high in alcohol, makes an occasional appearance in sauces. Why would a tomato sauce spiked with vodka have so much more flavor even though the sauce simmers long enough to boil off most of the alcohol? There must be a key flavor component in tom­atoes that dissolves in alcohol.  Once the alcohol dissolves that flavor component and re­leases it into the sauce, its job is done, so it doesn’t matter that most of it boils off.

Does all the alcohol evaporate when you cook with it?

Alcohol boils at a lower tem­perature than water, so you’d think that the alcohol would completely evaporate before the water, but this doesn’t hap­pen. Some of the alcohol and water combine to form an inseparable mixture called an azeotrope. So even after lengthy boiling, some alcohol remains bound with water.  Not surprisingly, the cook­ing method and cooking time also influence how much al­cohol evaporates. Flambéing removes about 25% of the original alcohol. Simmering on the stovetop for 30 minutes evaporates about 65% of the alcohol. And 2½ hours of sim­mering removes about 95%.

So . . . What about cooking without wine?

Is there a substi­tute for wine in recipes? To re­place the flavor of the wine itself, you can use a little fruit juice or verjus (unfermented and unripe grape juice) but without the alcohol to do its flavor-extraction magic, you won’t get as much complexity. To draw out as much flavor as possible with­out the alcohol, include a little water and fat to dissolve and carry both the water and fat soluble fla­vors. You can also boost flavor with things like citrus zest, vinegar, fresh herbs, pepper and other spices.  Wine does however make a unique contribution in cooking.