Wines give a characteristic flavour to the cooking of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece; but although wine has been made in the Levant and Middle East since time immemorial, it does not enter commonly into the modern cooking of the Arab countries, Turkey or Persia.
It is perhaps rather surprising that a relatively small amount of wine cooked slowly in meat dishes creates a characteristic and strong flavour quite different from that of the original wine. The alcohol contained in the wine will have vanished early in the cooking, because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water and will have vapourized and gone away in the steam. What one has is a unique flavour, basic to dishes such as coq au vin or boeuf a la bourguignonne. Anyone who has lived for a time in one of the European wine countries will have no doubt become used to adding wine to the cooking as a matter of daily habit, casually and without thinking twice about it. Those who are not so fortunate – who live in countries where wine is regarded as a luxury or a ‘booze’ instead of a necessary part of a meal – will be unused to having wine always available in the kitchen. For these people, using wine presents some problems, apart from expense, because few dishes call for a whole bottle of wine and it goes sour rather quickly, once it is opened (see Vinegar). But wine will not go sour if it is kept out of contact with the air, for the bacteria that cause wine to sour need oxygen. One solution to the problem is to keep leftover wine away from the air by pouring a little good cooking oil on the surface.
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Both red and white wines are used in cooking, and the quality of the wine is of prime importance. The flavour of the wine and its acidity or sweetness influence the flavour of the dish, and some acid wines tend to toughen meat. There is another factor in that some wines break and become ‘thin’ during cooking. Experience is the only guide, since most people cannot afford to use a fine-named wine for cooking (for instance, a whole bottle of Chambertin) and must depend on whatever vin ordinaire is supplied by the local wine merchants. It is obvious, however, that, in the absence of indications to the contrary, a wine of the type produced in the district where the dish originates is the correct one to use. One would not use a claret for a dish originating in Burgundy. Some recipes call for very particular wines. For instance when wines are used in English cooking, they are often those which have come from districts close to sea ports, such as Cadiz (Jerez) and Oporto. This is perhaps why both port and sherry are used so much in English dishes, though rarely on the Continent. There is often this strong link between history, geography and the ingredients used in cooking.
Madeira is used to flavour consomme and aspic. This wine correctly comes from the Portuguese island of that name, situated north of the Canary Islands, and was more popular in the past than it is today. It is a fortified wine and, like port and sherry, can be kept for a couple of weeks after the bottle is opened. It comes in various degrees of sweetness, varying according to the grape used. The four principal varieties are Sercial, Bual, Verdelho and Malmsey, of which Sercial is the driest and the best to use in such dishes as jambon au Madere.
Marsala is another fortified wine, usually rather sweet, and tasting partly of caramelized sugar. This wine comes correctly from the area around the port of Marsala at the most westerly tip of Sicily. It is used a great deal in Italian cooking and anyone who has a liking for Italian food must keep a bottle of Marsala in the kitchen cupboard. As some of the cheaper Marsalas are quite horrible and as only small quantities are required, it is better to buy a fairly good one and not go for the cheapest thing on the market. Marsala, like Madeira, is made in varying degrees of strength and sweetness and the same rules apply to its use in cooking as do to Madeira.
Port comes from the hinterland about fifty miles from Oporto, although today it is imitated in many parts of the world. This is indispensable in English cooking for dishes such as jugged hare and Cumberland sauce.
Rice wines of various kinds are much used in the cooking of China and Japan, as they have a
Slightly sherry-like flavour; in Europe it is usual to substitute dry sherry, although rice wines are available in specialist shops. The Chinese flavour combination of fish stock, grated turnip, ginger and rice wine (dry sherry) is excellent.