Sunday, February 28, 2021

Wine, The Secret Sauce

Many cultures cook with wine. Growing up, my Hakka Chinese grandmother would make delicious drunken chicken, which I used to think meant exactly just that. The Italians have Brasato Al Barolo (Beef Braised in Barolo). The French have Coq Au Vin (Chicken Braised in Wine). One of my all-time favorites is steamed clams in saffron-infused white wine sauce with garlic and shallots sautéed in butter.

Clams steamed in wine sauce with saffron

I cook with wine occasionally, the occasion being that open bottle of wine that is about to "expire." In this month's blog post, let's explore what exactly about wine that elevates an everyday dish to one with complexity and depth of character. 

Delivering Flavors

The alcohol in wine is a remarkable flavor delivery system. When tasting wine, the alcohol delivers the aroma to the nose and taste to the palate. It then sticks around at the back of the mouth, allowing the flavors to linger and create the perception of "a long finish."

In cooking with wine, the alcohol binds with fat and water, dissolving flavors from both. When wine is used in a marinade, the alcohol absorbs fat-soluble flavors in the aromatics (like garlic and rosemary) as well as water-soluble flavors (like in honey and brine). It then deposits these flavors directly into the cells of the meat so that when you finally cook the meat, it is bursting with delectable goodness. 

Juicy steak soaked in red wine reduction

Wine is also excellent for deglazing a pan after searing a nice cut of meat. The alcohol dislodges and dissolves the browned bits, creating a sauce that is concentrated in flavors, unmatched by a similar reduction made with broth or water. 

Enhancing Flavors

Apart from being a flavor delivery system, wine also adds to the taste of a dish by imparting acidity and sweetness. For instance,

Sauvignon Blanc adds tartness and a tinge of sweetness in a lemon cream sauce that marries well with the crunchy juicy pan-fried chicken. 
Pan-fried chicken in creamy lemon wine sauce

A well-made wine may also extend its secondary and tertiary flavors to a dish. These notes, layered on by the fermentation and aging processes, include examples such as creaminess from malolactic fermentation and vanilla from oak. Want a cream sauce to coat your linguini? A buttery Chardonnay may be it!

As a rule of thumb, crisp white wine works best for lighter flavored dishes, like chicken and fish, while big bold red wine works best for flavorful meaty dishes. However, one can break the rule and use the flavor profile of the wine to inspire and guide what you cook. Add an earthy Burgundy to that chicken and mushroom stew with onions, garlic, thyme sprigs, and a bay leaf. Make a Syrah reduction sauce for that peppercorn-crusted steak. 

Doesn't that just whet your appetite?

So next time you have that unfinished bottle or are just feeling inspired to make a special meal, try that time-tested recipe like Julia Child's Bœuf Bourguignon. Or let your creative juice flow with the wine and experiment with new recipes. Because you have that secret sauce.