What Is Cooking Wine?

Cooking wine has a bad reputation, but is it deserved? Skipping it in a recipe might mean losing a valuable flavor component.

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One of the first rules I learned in culinary school about how to cook with wine was to use wine you’re going to serve with the finished dish. The echo of that statement hadn’t died before they added, “And never use cooking wine!” The reasoning was cooking wine is full of salt, preservatives, and sweeteners. To put on exclamation point on their argument, my instructors explained it like this: “You don’t find it in the wine section; it’s with the vinegars. That should tell you all you need to know!”

Well, I’m here to tell you cooking wine does have a place in certain kitchens and at certain times.

What Is Cooking Wine?

Like regular table wine, cooking wines comes in a number of different varieties, including dry and sweet reds and whites, fortified wines like sherry and even rice wine. Cooking wine tends to be higher in alcohol, coming in at around 16 to 17 percent. This is intentional, since alcohol burns off during cooking— the higher the alcohol level, the longer it takes to burn off.

A cooking wine also contains salt, some preservatives and in some cases, a sweetener. This extends the shelf life of an open bottle of wine from hours to months. The extra shelf life is great for people who don’t purchase table wine and only need small amounts of cooking wine from time to time. But since it does contain salt, a good rule of thumb is to reduce any added salt in a recipe, and then add small amounts of salt at the end if needed.

Can You Drink Cooking Wine?

One sip will tell you cooking wine was never intended to be sipped. It’s perfectly safe to drink, if you can get past the salty-sweet flavor, but trust me, you’re not going to enjoy it.

When Should You Use Cooking Wine?

While there are benefits to drinking a glass of wine a day, some people prefer not to imbibe. Cooking wine is then a good alternative. If a recipe calls for a small amount of wine, around a 1/2 cup or less, people who don’t have wine on hand will usually skip it, thus eliminating a valuable flavor component. Don’t skip it; reach for cooking wine or one of the substitutes below instead. But, if you’re going to be serving wine with the finished dish, skip the cooking wine and add some of the table wine.

That said, another alternative for people who don’t usually drink wine but still want the flavor in the dish is to buy a boxed wine, many of which come in single servings. That way you get the flavor without the waste.

What Is the Best Wine for Cooking?

There isn’t one “perfect” table wine for cooking. Wine isn’t standard, and the flavors and structure vary from grape to grape and wine to wine. Red wines tend to be heavier and more robust and white wines tend to be more mild. That said, there are some very heavy whites and very mild reds, so it’s best to ask your wine merchant if you’re unsure.

One trick is to try to imagine the flavors of the main ingredients of your recipe. Are they powerful or subtle? Once you make that determination, you can try to pick a wine that will go with those flavors. For example, a strong wine will cover up mild flavors, so you don’t want to cook chicken in a heavy red wine. When making the classic dish Coq au Vin, you’ll want to use a mild red wine, like a pinot noir, instead of a heavy zinfandel. Save the zin for a hearty Beef Bourguignon. It’s all about balance and complementing flavors.

What Can Be Substituted for Cooking Wine?

  • Table Wine: Using table wine instead of cooking wine is by far the best option.
  • Grape Juice and Vinegar: You can use red or white grape juice with a splash of vinegar, but remember that juices are much sweeter than wine, so if the recipe calls for a larger amount this substitute might not work.
  • Stock, Broth or Bouillon: Chicken or beef broth has a number of flavor components that can take the place of wine in smaller amounts. Here’s the difference between stock and broth.
  • Tomato Juice: This umami powerhouse adds flavor, acidity and salt.

Since I do enjoy drinking many different wines, I have them around. So when I’m cooking, my first choice is always going to be to use table wine. If the recipe calls for a lot of wine, I’ll purchase an inexpensive version of the same kind of wine I’m serving: I’ll save the $15 cabernet sauvignon for drinking and use the $8 cab sav for cooking.

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James Schend
Formerly Taste of Home’s Deputy Editor, Culinary, James oversaw the Food Editor team, recipe contests and Bakeable, and managed all food content for Trusted Media Brands. He has also worked in the kitchen of Williams-Sonoma and at Southern Living. An honor graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, James has traveled the world searching for great food in all corners of life.