Your Complete Guide to Cooking Wine vs. Regular Wine

Your Complete Guide to Cooking Wine vs. Regular Wine

We all know that drinking wine is one of life's greatest pleasures. Food is another one. So it's no wonder that wine and food pairing has been practically elevated to an art form. But when you talk about cooking with wine, that's where things get a little fuzzy. In this guide, you'll learn all about cooking wine, including what it is, how it compares to regular drinking wine, and which types of wine to choose when you want to zhoosh up a meal.

What Is Cooking Wine?

Cooking wine is any wine that's used to complement the flavor of food. Technically, this could be anything from that Riesling you had during last night's Netflix binge-a-thon to the bottle of Burgundy you picked up during your latest Trader Joe's run. 

However, if you want to get into the weeds a little bit, there are wines that are specifically labeled as "cooking wines." These commercially produced products are not like regular wine since they're not intended for drinking. Yes, they have alcohol but these cheap excuses for the real deal are often loaded with salt and preservatives to extend their shelf life. 

Read the label on the bottle of wine to determine if it's a "cooking wine" or a normal drinking wine. Also, take note of where the wine is located in your grocery store. If it's in the salad dressing or condiment aisle instead of the wine section, leave it on the shelf and move on.

Cooking Wine vs. Drinking Wine

Cooking wine: Person pours Usual Wines Rose into glass

The prevailing wisdom states that you should only cook with wine that you'd be willing to drink. And now that you have some background on “cooking wines” that are labeled as such, it makes perfect sense. But what about all the other wines you could use for cooking? How do you know which ones to pick? Well, it depends. 

While a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck might qualify as a perfectly suitable table wine for one person, it might be a "no thank you, hard pass" for another. That's not to say only expensive wine can make your meal sing. After all, the delicate nuances of any wine’s character will burn off in the cooking process, so there's no need to use a $50 bottle of Cab for that osso buco you're planning to make. 

In general, experts say you can find a good wine that costs anywhere from $10-$20 per bottle. It's also a good idea to select wines that come from recognized regions such as Napa or Sonoma. Even better, if a recipe calls for just a splash of this or a pour of that, you can enjoy the leftover wine alongside your meal.

12 Wines to Use for Cooking

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Now that you know some of the finer points of cooking with wine, it's time to figure out which wine goes with what food and why. Generally speaking, the best red wines for cooking are those with moderate tannins, such as Pinot Noir, Merlot, and lighter Cabernets. Meanwhile, crisp whites like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay that's not been aged in oak barrels, and Sauvignon Blanc are solid choices for your culinary endeavors. 

It's also worth mentioning that dry wine is a better cooking wine for savory dishes since there's less residual sugar. As such, save the sweet wine for desserts where you don't mind adding a little extra sugariness. 

One more tip: If you're cooking and realize you don’t have any wine in the house (Usual Wines can make sure that never happens again), you still have options. If the recipe calls for white wine, use chicken or vegetable stock, or light juices such as apple, lemon, or lime. If the recipe asks for red wine, you can swap in any broth (including beef) or red grape juice or cranberry juice.

Here are a dozen of the best wines to get you cooking:

  1. Cabernet Sauvignon: Use the intensity of this bold red wine for any red meat. Whether you're braising ribs or making sauces for New York strip steak, venison, or lamb, this full-bodied vino will cut through thick cuts of meat and amp up the flavor.
  2. Chianti: Never mind the fava beans, Hannibal. This red blend's high acidity level is ideal for marinades, tomato sauces, and the classic Italian dish, risotto al Chianti.
  3. Unoaked Chardonnay: While oaked Chardonnays can get too heavy and bitter as they cook, an unoaked version balances the acidity and brings out the rich flavors of creamy pasta sauces and gravies.
  4. Dry Vermouth: This fragrant fortified wine is a solid substitute for any recipe that calls for white wine, just use a little less to avoid overpowering the dish. Dry vermouth is well-suited for sauteing lighter proteins such as fish and chicken.
  5. Madeira: Use a sweet version of this fortified wine to create delicious dessert reduction sauces that you can drizzle atop cakes, pudding, or ice cream.
  6. Marsala: This fortified wine from Sicily is a household name thanks to the nutty, rich flavor it lends to mushroom dishes like (surprise!) chicken Marsala.
  7. Merlot: With its low-tannin, fruit-forward profile, Merlot provides that sweet spot for dishes when a Cab is too intense and a Pinot Noir is too light. 
  8. Pinot Grigio: With its light, crisp, and refreshing flavor profile, this white wine works well with a wide variety of dishes, especially when you want to add a little zing to seafood broths, buttery veggie sautés, and light pasta dishes.
  9. Pinot Noir: This versatile red wine is a winner for anything from pork chops to roasted salmon. Lighter, fruit-forward Pinot Noirs are best with chicken while more full-bodied versions are ideal for heavier meat.
  10. Riesling: Although you might be more familiar with sweet Riesling, a dry version of this white wine can impart a crisp counterpoint to creamy chicken dishes or seafood dishes.
  11. Sauvignon Blanc: This dry white wine is great in both light and creamy sauces for seafood dishes (particularly whitefish) thanks to its crisp, acidic, and zesty nature. 
  12. Zinfandel: With its bold, jammy flavors, this full-bodied red works for hearty stews, tomato-based sauces, or any recipe calling for dry red wine.

It's Time to Get Cooking

Whether or not you're a would-be Giada in the kitchen, it's nice to know that cooking is yet another way where you can include wine. While just about any wine can be used for cooking, not all "cooking wine" is for drinking. 

The bottom line is that cooking with wine is meant to enhance the flavor of food and add an even greater degree of pleasure. So in that spirit, let yourself get a little creative, and don't be afraid to experiment with different wines to figure out what you like. Once you get cooking, you may be surprised at what you discover. 

On the other hand, as the old saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen — and pour yourself a glass of wine. (Well, we added that last part.) When takeout or delivery feels like a better option, you can still have your wine and drink it too. Pick up the Usual Wines mixed pack featuring a delicious red, white, and rosé. No cooking or cleanup required.