One of the most beloved flavors stemming from the southern Italy world of cuisine is Marsala and the Marsala wine.
A sweet and savory force that can both complement and captain a meal’s gastronomic direction, it’s a delicious Sicilian staple. From the 300+ years from which it’s been crafted and developed to the three different dinners, I called for it in the last month, it’s a timeless cuisine classic.
However, it’s used so often that sometimes I run into a ‘ruh roh’ moment when I start prepping my mushrooms and dinner menu when I open my cupboard and an empty bottle is looking back at me. Cursing at myself last week for not remembering to mark it on the grocery list, I now have to scramble into the pantry to find a good substitute.
When the recipe calls for Marsala and it’s not in your arsenal at that moment, you learn to make something else work in a cinch. Italian dishes are the most popular in my home, and so it’s always a good idea to have some Marsala, or working knowledge of its substitutes, around and available.
In this article, we’ll highlight the plentiful options and explain how that can be, stemming from the history of the flavor of Marsala wine style to the flavor palates it helps complement.
So, without further adieu, let’s move on to find the most suitable substitutes for Marsala Wine after a brief description of the wine itself.
Marsala Wine: An Overview
It is a fortified Italian wine that fittingly, comes from the town of Marsala in southern Italy. It’s known as a popular shipping wine, as it did not spoil on long sea voyages.
Now we use it mostly used as a cooking wine though occasionally for drinking as well, and it enjoys a deserved reputation as both a versatile and affordable option.
Its versatility extends to the fact that it’s sued in a variety of meals and courses, ranging from deserts to savory main course meals. Often accompanied with a flavorful dark red wine like a pinot noir, but other options work just as well.
The wide breadth of choices stems from the fact that there are two types of Marsala wines:
Because there are two different styles of Marsala, the style each is cooked with depends on the application. For example, sweet Marsala is more commonly used in sweets and cakes, whereas dry Marsala is used in meat dishes, normally pork or chicken.
However, within the sweet Marsala style, there is quite a range of sugar content. So let’s take a moment to review how many different options there are.
Marsala’s Sweetness Index
Even though Marsala is a fortified wine, it doesn’t have to be sweet each time. There’s a variety of flavors, including dry, semi-dry, and apéritif and dessert wine styles of taste.
To determine the sweetness specificity, we look to the sugar content in the wine.
- Secco is a dry marsala, which holds a maximum of 40 grams per liter of sugar. When we say dry, that often can be a synonym for crisp or light. The flavor here wouldn’t be so overpowering, and more of a complement to the other Italian herbs and spices in the dish.
- Then there’s a semi-secco marsala variety which is either semi-sweet or off-dry. The amount of sugar in this bottle ranges from 41 to 100 grams of residual sugar per liter of wine. This is the style you can expect when the dish is a certified flavorful marsala meal. A cup of marsala to cook down the flavor will really open up the aroma and warm up your kitchen.
- And the final is the aptly titled dolce wine, which is a sweet Marsala. This holds a minimum of 100 grams of residual sugar per liter, so it’s something to be cooked with caution. This would be something handy for a dessert dish.
The Best Substitutes For Marsala Wine
Because all marsala wine needs to come from the region of Marsala in Italy, it can be sometimes difficult to get a hold of the exact product. Fortunately, there are a plethora of options you can use to swap out when you don’t have a marsala on hand.
1. A good substitute for marsala wine is any fortified wine–
Fortified wine is a term meaning a normal wine that has been improved with a distilled spirit like brandy.
Marsala is a leader within the fortified wine community, but there are other surefire fortified wines you can use to substitute, like port wine, sherry or Madiera. All these options, especially Madeira wine, are similar in taste, and often a port wine can be easier to find.
2. A non-fortified wine like white wine–
You can add a teaspoon of brandy to help you achieve a flavourful wine Marsala when all you have is regular wine lying around.
A sweet white wine should be used when cooking a dessert or party dish, and then use a dry white wine when cooking savory dishes. I would recommend adding a bit of brown sugar as well to help mimic the flavourful tones of a Madiera or marsala when you don’t have the real thing on hand.
Another comparable cooking substitute among regular wines would be a pinot noir when you need a darker tone.
See also: How to Substitute White Wine in Cooking?
3. Another marsala wine replacement is dry sherry–
Of course, Marsala has a more complex flavor profile than sherry but when we are cooking, cherry is a fine alternative. That is to say, as long as the Marsala flavor is not the main emphasis of the meal.
If you’re using sherry as your marsala substitute, make sure it’s not the cooking sherry but actual sherry. This is because cooking sherry actually has a lot of sodium (salt) in it. While this would be beneficial in most instances as salt can amplify the flavor of a meal, here it would unintentionally shift the tones of the plate.
So add just some regular sherry, and if need be, also cook to adding an equal part of sweet vermouth. Vermouth can help offset the dry sherry package and create a more flavourful result.
4. Non-booze substitute like white grape juice and vegetable or chicken stock–
This non-alcoholic substitute is an easy option though it can provide less flavor. To really amplify the quality of the dish, add a couple of tablespoons of sherry vinegar when putting in a quarter cup of grape juice.
Another way to keep a meal alcohol free is to sub out Italian cooking wine and throw in vegetable or chicken stock in its place. This works best with a savory dish that needs a lot of time to cook on an open flame, like a chicken marsala or something with meat.
Marsala Wine And Its Various Grades
This wine is from Italian’s southern island called Sicily, and it’s an amalgamation of several different types of grapes that come from this region. These three types of grapes are called:
All three are native to the southern island, and the help of their distinct style gives the Marsala variety its flavorful product.
There are also three various grades of Marsala, based on the color and sweetness of the blend. The three are Amber, Oro, and Rubio.
- Amber- It is the darkest and sweetest of all. Vintners use white grapes and then the other components turn the color darker. This dry white wine creates a flavorful, light and crisp palate.
- Oro-It is a rich gold flavor, and naturally, has a lighter palate accompanying it. It is made with white grapes. This variety gives off notes of hazelnuts, licorice, vanilla extract, and raisins which makes it more earthy and distinct.
- Rubino- It is the reddest option, between the lines of the three listed choices. Made with red grapes, the fruity flavor and aroma also lead to its stronger, tannic taste.
Now that we’ve identified the various colors, grapes, and grades, its time to delve into the alcohol percentages that come with a bottle of Marsala.
Marsala Wine And Its Various Alcohol Grades
Compared to other wines, alcohol content for a marsala considerably higher, hovering between 17 and 20 percent.
A normal range for non-cooking wine hovers between 11 and 14 percent, so proceed with caution when cooking with the higher grade stuff.
The grade of the wine also determines the alcohol percentage, with the longer the Marsala variety has been fermenting, the higher the alcohol content is. Depending on how long the wine as been fermenting, it is offered a new title.
ABV (Alcohol by Volume)
|Less than 1 year old
|More than 5 years
|10 years or more
At least 18%
If you’re wondering where to buy all these various varieties, know that it is awfully easy to find. Anywhere where you can buy a bottle of Jack Daniels or a bottle from Piedmont or Tuscany should carry the same types of Marsala we’ve listed.
Grocery stores and liquor stores usually have heaps of the stuff in all the styles we’ve mentioned. And you don’t need to worry about any of the wines you purchase going bad; the shelf life is guaranteed to last at least until the last drops of the bottle fall into your flavorful cooking pan.
Now that we know how the different fermentation processes impact the alcohol content, let’s delve into how the different styles connotate to the various meals we use a marsala-based wine for.
Dry vs. Sweet Marsala Wine
Within the marsala world, there are two styles, sweet and dry. Each has a specificity tied to a specific style of cuisine, so be sure to select carefully when searching for a substitute.
With its higher sugar concentration, is best in rich deserts. Shortcake, zabaglione, or tiramisu are all opulent cakes that can be improved with a splash of the sweet stuff. Also, sweet sauces are welcome to a marsala dressing.
It can also be used to create a pork loin or chicken dish. I know a classic dinner option in my family is a chicken marsala, and the veal marsala style is just as delicious. And if you like, it also can be used as a fantastic after-dinner drink.
This style is often attributed to savory dishes or enjoyed as an apéritif. A dry marsala will add caramelization and a deep nutty flavor to meats and mushrooms, including beef tenderloin, turkey or veal. It’s usually cooked down into a near-syrup consistency along with shallots or onions and then adding herbs and the aforementioned mushrooms.
You can also use dry marsala in some risotto recipes, and it goes great alongside any sort of mushroom dish. Mushroom’s porous exterior is a super sucker for that Marsala flavor, really providing a robust texture.
Note: Between the two and knowing when to use one instead of the other, know that dry marsala can be used as an alternative for sweet, but not the other way round. This is why, if for limited pantry space you only have room for one style, we recommend a dry marsala. It has a wider range and variety makes it a more special choice.
In essence, Marsala wine is a dynamic flavor with a strong history and even stronger force today. Whether cooking light parties and desserts to robust veal or chicken mainstays, Marsala has an enduring place in the Italian kitchen.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t find its substitutes, and a blend of sherry, port, grape juice, and brown sugar can quickly resolve any dinnertime woes. However, you choose to cook your Italian favorites in the kitchen, know that the robust history behind you and the plentiful options in your kitchen make marsala a meaningful mainstay in the cooking world.
Bonus tip: While you’re at it, check out this video on how to make your own marsala wine sauce for your next cooking session!