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.
When subbing out Marsala wine for one of the potential alternatives, you need to be sure that you’re not skimping on the flavourful taste associated with the sauce. The flavor is so distinct it is difficult to remedy in full, and so we’ve gathered out options to those that best match the unique a flavor palate.
Depending on what your preferences and expectations are regarding your alternate to this fantastic wine, you should be able to find something that will make do. 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 onto the most suitable substitutes.
Marsala wine: an overview
Marsala 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: sweet and dry. 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. Because the last thing you’d want to do if try and use one substitute when you accidentally overpower or underwhelm the dish because you hadn’t considered the style of sugar content you were hoping to emulate with your substitute!
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. Though no one really counts sugars in my kitchen! This would be something handy for a dessert dish like we had mentioned before, but it can also be used when caramelizing a side dish like onions and garlic. Marsala wine comes in a variety of sweetness ranges, though it also comes from a variety of grape styles. Whether it’s a red, white, or blend variety, read along further to understand how these complex flavors are masked and created.
Marsala wine and its various grades
Marsala 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 Catarratto, Grillo, and Inzolia. All three are native to the southern island, and the help of their distinct style gives the Marsala variety its flavorful product.
Just as there are three different grapes used to create a good Marsala wine, 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 is the darkest and sweetest of the three, while Oro is a light-cold flavor and naturally, has a lighter palate accompanying it. The third option is a Rubino, which is the reddest option, between the lines of the three listed choices.
Amber is named for its gorgeous color, and this color stems from the added sweeteners within. The combination or adding dried fruits and occasionally almonds or other earthy nuts. To create this wine, vintners use white grapes and then the other components turn the color darker. This dry white wine creates a flavorful, light and crisp palate. Moving down darker is the Oro Marsala wine, which has a rich gold flavor, and like its predecessor, is also made with white grapes. However, this variety gives off notes of hazelnuts, licorice, vanilla extract, and raisins. These additives help darken the tone of the wine to create something more earthy and distinct.
The darkest option is the distinctive ruby red Rubino style. Made with red grapes, the fruity flavor and aroma also lead to its stronger, tannic taste. If you’re hoping to cook with the wine and hope to steal a couple of quick sips as well, this wine would have the flavor most similar to a standard glass of red. 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.
So for the newest variety, Fine Marsala is less than one year old and is usually around 17% alcohol, whereas Superiore wine has been sitting for two years with around an 18% alcohol grade, a minor uptick. Superiore Riserva is a bit more upgraded than that, having been in the hold for four years with an ABV (Alcohol by Volume) percentage of 18%. And then a wine that has been sitting for over five years is called Vergine Soleras which is between 18 to 20 percent, depending on the time it’s been held in storage. The final form of a Marsala-style wine is a Soleras Riserva, which has been aged for ten years or more and has at least 18% ABV.
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 versus 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.
Sweet Marsala, 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.
A dry marsala 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.
The classic Chicken marsala dish uses chicken that’s been braised into a fantastic blend of flavourful olive oil and butter, along with mushrooms and Italian spices. However 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.
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.
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.
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.
Another satisfactory Marsala substitute is using 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.
A third 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.
And for a marsala wine substitute that has no booze, feel free to use white grape juice. 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. I sometimes like to cook with vegetable stock if I not only want to cut down on the alcohol impact of my meal but also an ethical consideration. By sticking with vegetable stock, you’re able to provide a healthy alternative while keeping your heart happy and your stomach healthy.
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!