I rarely cook with wine, so I'm prone to all kinds of first-timer errors. A few nights ago, I made steak au poivre with a seemingly simple sauce. The steak was crusty and delicious, but the sauce was pathetic—astringent and thin. I told Executive Food Editor Tina Ujlaki my method; she stopped me when I got to the part about deglazing the cast-iron pan (which had given the steak an awesome crust). "You don't want to deglaze with wine in a cast-iron pan," she said matter-of-factly. So, for this wine issue, I went to one of the cooks I admire most, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli of New York City's Butter and The Darby, to find out more about cooking with wine—and hopefully avoid any future mistakes!
Dana B. Cowin: How do you choose a wine to cook with?
Alexandra Guarnaschelli: I use different wines for different purposes. I reach for the cheap bottle that's in the door of my fridge when I'm making a braise, where the wine will cook for a long time. I save good wine for finishing a dish, when you can really taste it. It's just like olive oil. You've heard of finishing oil? That's how I use good wine.
DBC: So you don't really cook with good wine?
AG: I don't think that's necessary. I would rather invest the bulk of my "wine allowance" in my glass and use the inexpensive stuff in the kitchen, because so many of the most subtle flavors cook off. What do you do?
DBC: I would cook with the wine I was planning to drink. Is that a waste?
AG: I once saw someone use an '82 Pétrus to make a wine sauce. It was hard to watch, honestly. The chef cooked the wine down to a syrup with some minced shallots and then whisked in a ton of butter and some black pepper.
DBC: Was it good?
AG: It was good! And whatever anyone does with their wine is not my business. It's a free country. But I would have enjoyed the Pétrus more if I'd been able to drink it.
DBC: Why cook with wine in the first place—what does it do for a recipe?
AG: It's great for adding acidity to rich dishes. It's a lot like adding vinegar to olive oil when you're making a vinaigrette. In my mind, if I'm making a beef stew, I imagine the beef is the olive oil and the wine is the vinegar, and I try to strike a balance between the two ingredients.
DBC: Has a wine ever inspired you to create a recipe?
AG: I remember the first time I tried Sauternes. I immediately wanted to drizzle it on some apricots or oranges. I had the same feeling when I tasted a really dry Marsala; I wanted to run out and get some leeks and lobster and make a soup. Wine of any kind produces personal reactions and taste sensations. I say, go with those sensations.
DBC: What's the biggest mistake that people make when cooking with wine?
AG: Not letting the wine cook off before adding another liquid, like stock; the wine ends up tasting raw. To see for yourself, make two small batches of risotto. First, sauté shallots and rice, then add wine and let it cook off before ladling in stock. It will be delicious! For the second batch, add wine and stock at the same time. There will be that uncooked wine flavor.
DBC: Is there any way to fix a dish if you've added too much wine?
AG: Depends on the dish. There's a fix that's good in a lot of cases, but it's what I'd call a "ghetto" fix—which is that you can add more butter or olive oil. The richness helps balance the taste of the wine. You could also cook and puree some onions, for a savory dish, or apples, for a fruit dish, and add them to mellow the wine flavor.
DBC: What was the most memorable cooking-with-wine experience you've ever had?
AG: I was working at Guy Savoy in Paris in 1995, and Guy made a white wine gelée. He gently warmed the wine just enough, so it melted the gelatin, and let it set into a gelée in the refrigerator. Guy took something you would drink, transformed it ever so slightly, and turned it into something you would eat. I have to say, it was a brilliant dish.
DBC: What's the best dish that you've ever made with wine?
AG: I was in France with Patricia Wells, at her house in Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence, and we came back from the market one day with incredible figs. We drizzled some Beaumes-de-Venise on top, added some sugar and put them in the oven for 15 minutes. They were amazing; we felt like we'd robbed a bank.
DBC: What are some great dishes to cook with wine?
AG: If you're cooking with a sweet wine, like a Sauternes, you can use it for sabayon or with fruit, to get some of the floral notes. If you take a sparkling wine and use it, with a little butter, to gently poach oysters—say, for 30 seconds—you'll taste the wine's dry and sweet qualities. If you're making a stew, a hearty Merlot or Syrah works. To use a fortified wine, like Marsala, try a splash to finish off any crustacean-based soup. I love braising hearty vegetables like rutabaga in wine—I don't reserve braising for meat. And I love adding wine to sautéed mushrooms; they absorb a wine's flavor and marry well with it. I cook the mushrooms with red or white wine, then finish with a little Marsala, sherry or Madeira to make the taste richer.
DBC: Do you have any cardinal rules about cooking with wine?
AG: There might be a few general rules, but you should always feel free to break them. A wine is different every year. A red won't turn into a white, but it changes as it ages. It's a living, breathing thing. How can cooking with wine not be beautiful?