Choosing a Dry White Wine for Cooking

pan of seafood with lemons

A crisp, dry white wine is not only delicious to drink with a meal, it can also enhance the flavors of a dish during cooking. A recipe might call for you to use it to deglaze a pan, collecting up all the bits of browned meat and mushrooms. The acidity of a dry white wine can also elevate a seafood dish or add depth cream sauces and gravies. That said, the phrase “dry white wine” is terribly generic. “Dry” means the wine is not sweet, but that still leaves you with many choices. How do you go about choosing the right dry white wine for cooking?

Always Choose a Wine You’re Willing to Drink

If you take just one thing away from this post, it should be this: always cook with wine that you’d be willing to drink. In particular, you should avoid anything labeled “cooking wine.” Cooking wines are notoriously salty due to the amount of preservatives they contain. The salt gives these wines a long shelf life, but also renders them undrinkable and disgusting. It’s best to keep them away from your seafoods and sauces. They’ll completely ruin your dish.

That said, it’s not worth using an expensive wine for cooking. Heating the wine removes a lot of the subtle qualities that give these wines their complexity. On the other hand, young and inexpensive wines are great and can add a lot of flavor to your dishes. Recipes often call for just one cup of wine, so that’s the best reason to buy something you like. You can enjoy the rest of the bottle during dinner (or if you’re me, while cooking).

pasta dish with white sauce

Unoaked Chardonnays are wonderful for enriching cream sauces.

General Recommendations

The most common recommendations for dry white wine for cooking are Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and unoaked Chardonnay. (The oakiness of oaked Chardonnays tends to become bitterness after cooking, so don’t use those.) You can also use Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or even dry Sherry.

Of course there are differences between these wines which could impact your dishes in the best of ways. Unoaked Chardonnays add a lovely richness. Sauvignon Blancs bring in a wonderful, sharp acidity along with herbal, fruity, and floral notes. Pinot Grigios are fairly neutral, which may be ideal for incorporating with other delicate flavors.

Cooking with Seafood

For preparing shellfish and seafood dishes, stick with crisp dry white wines. Pinot Grigio is one of the most ideal choices to have on standby in the pantry and it’s always possible to get a tasty, inexpensive bottle. Seafood recipes often call for white wine for steaming or poaching. Pinot Grigios are wonderful for their acidity and enhance seafood flavors through their zesty and mineral qualities.

Making Cream Sauces and Gravies

Unoaked Chardonnays are the perfect choice for cream sauces and gravies. It’s best to cook the wine separately, reducing it at least by half before blending in the cream.

Preparing White Meat

Unoaked Chardonnays are also an excellent choice when preparing white meat. Just a few tablespoons in a marinade can help tenderize meat and add flavor, as well. If you prefer, Viogniers and Chenin Blancs also work well.

Enhancing Vegetable Dishes

It’s amazing how a little white wine can brighten a vegetable dish. Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal dry white wine for deglazing the pan after sauteing veggies.

Other Tips for Cooking with Wine

  • The alcohol will cook off over time, just leaving the flavor of the wine. Generally, you should resist the urge to add more toward the end of cooking. Raw wine is lovely to drink, but can ruin the flavor of a dish.
  • White wine is only good for a few days after opening the bottle because it will begin to oxidize. You can seal the bottle and refrigerate it to slow down the process, or consider a stopper or preservation system if you’re not going to consume the bottle with dinner.

Need a Substitute for Dry Wine?

If you happen to have some dry Vermouth on hand, that should be a fine substitute for dry white wine. It lasts longer in the pantry, too. You can also use a bit of chicken stock, lemon juice, or even white wine vinegar (just a splash!) depending on the flavor profile you’re going for. Just start with less than the indicated volume of wine, taste as it the dish cooks, and make any necessary adjustments.

Bon appétit!

beautiful glass of white wine with dinner