Chefs Explain Why Brooklyn Beckham Isn’t Totally Wrong for Cooking Pasta Sauce With a Cork

Italian and Portuguese chefs weigh in on the old-school cooking trick.

Brooklyn Beckham; wine corks

Jon Kopaloff / WireImage; Susanne Kronholm / Getty Images

When Brooklyn Beckham posted a photo of himself cooking Bolognese sauce with a wine cork in the pot, he was the latest celebrity kid to spark a cooking debate. But this one is a question shared by chefs from Europe to America: To cook or not to cook with cork? While most of the comments poked fun, other people — including Beckham — defended the cork’s inclusion, claiming it yields a more tender dish.

That way of thinking is found in more kitchens than you might expect. In Portugal and southern Italy, old-school chefs traditionally add wine corks to octopus recipes, claiming that the natural enzymes found in cork help to break down the cephalopod's tough tendons by drawing out moisture (a process similar to that of dry-aging). Lidia Bastianich has been known to recommend one cork for every two pounds of octopus, while some older recipe books advise one wine cork per quart of water. Aaron Walker from Pali Wine Co. says cork has a desiccant effect, meaning that it absorbs moisture. (Walker and his wife repurpose their corks by adding them to fruit bowls, keeping moisture and fruit flies away from fruit so it stays fresher longer.) 

Although chef Telmo Faria does not use the cork method at Uma Casa Restaurant in San Francisco, he remembers friends and family back home in Portugal often using cork while cooking octopus. “In the Azores, octopus is cooked with red wine. I’d see them open up the bottle, pour in the wine, and throw in the cork,” he recalls. “They would also put it in a pot of beans so that it wouldn’t foam over.” 

Carla Pellegrino from Limoncello Fresh Italian Kitchen in Las Vegas remembers her Portuguese and Italian grandmothers repurposing wine corks in their kitchens. “[They] used to make a ‘cork tea,’ which was a wine cork boiled in water,” she says. “They would give it to infants and toddlers to soothe constipation. In Italy, we would find that the wine cork would loosen particles; therefore, we would use it when cooking harder or tougher meats to help tenderize them.” 

Fabrizio Cavallini of Bencotto Italian Kitchen in San Diego cooks roughly 100 pounds of octopus each week. Despite learning the cork method while in cooking school in Italy, he remains convinced that the tenderness of octopus is based on two things: “the quality of the octopus and its preparation.” Chef Don Walker of Formento’s in Chicago agrees. “In my opinion, putting a cork in cooking water while making octopus is more of an old wives’ tale. While there could be some merit in the practice, nothing is more reliable than a great recipe with fresh ingredients, which will always help your octopus come out tender.”

So, should you cook with cork or not? We say it can’t hurt to experiment with cork to keep fruit fresh or pots of water from boiling over. But, if you’re going to use a wine cork for a more tender bite, we recommend making sure your ingredients are fresh and using basic tenderization techniques (salting, braising, dry-aging, marinating, or using a tenderizer). Then, go ahead and cork it like Beckham.

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