Why Cooking With Wine Makes Food Taste Better

Compounds in wine improve the flavor of cooked dishes.

Burgundy Pork Tenderloin
Photo by chibi chef.

Wine, it's what's for dinner. And not just as a beverage with dinner, also as a key ingredient in dinner.

Compounds in wine, including alcohol, improve the flavor of cooked dishes. Let's take a quick look at wine's flavor factors at work, and then dig into some top-rated recipes where wine is a critical ingredient.

The Flavor Factors


The alcohol in wine doesn't add flavor to dishes so much as it makes other ingredients taste better. The alcohol helps release flavor molecules in foods and assists in dissolving fats, allowing ingredients to reveal their own unique flavors in ways that other liquids (like water or broth) or fats (like butter and olive oil) cannot.

When adding wine to a sauce, make sure you allow most of the alcohol to cook off; otherwise, the sauce may have a harsh, slightly boozy taste. How do you know when enough is enough? After adding the wine, cook the sauce uncovered until it reduces by about half. As the alcohol burns away, the flavor of the sauce concentrates, becoming more delicious.

Scallops with White Wine Sauce
Photo by Meredith.


Have you ever paired a tomato sauce with a red wine like Merlot? The acid in the tomatoes can burn right through the wine, making it seem flat. That's because Merlot, which is typically on the low end in acid, can't compete with the acid in the tomatoes. Chianti Classico, on the other hand, is a terrific choice for tomato-based pasta dishes: the sangiovese grape (the main grape in Chianti) has enough acid to stand toe-to-toe with the acid in the tomato sauce.

Of course, all wines have acid. So when cooking with wine, use nonreactive pans and skillets (like those made from stainless steel or enameled cast iron) to avoid discoloration when the acid hits the pan.

Best Marinara Sauce
Photo by Meredith.


Tannins affect the texture of a wine. We often experience them in the mouth as a drying sensation, rather than as a specific taste. Tannins come from the grape's skins, stems, and seeds. Thick-skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, produce more tannic wines than thinner-skinned varietals like Pinot Noir. And red wines have more tannin than whites.

How do tannins affect our eating experience? Well, let's take Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic pairing partner with beef dishes. In part, that's because Cabernet Sauvignon is a highly tannic wine. The tannins in the wine become attracted to the proteins in the meat rather than the proteins in your saliva, which makes the wine seem like a softer experience in the mouth.

When you make a pan sauce with Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins become concentrated as the sauce reduces. If the sauce does not also include enough protein and fat to neutralize the tannin, the sauce could end up tasting astringent. A vegetarian sauce, then, might work better with a less tannic red wine, like Pinot Noir, or a white wine.

Steak with mushroom and red wine reduction
Steak with mushroom and red wine reduction | Photo by Meredith.

Flavors and Aromas

When you're making a dish that has one or two dominant flavors, it's worth thinking about wines that share those basic taste characteristics. Pinot Noir, for example, particularly Pinot Noir from Burgundy, is known for having flavors and aromas of mushrooms; it might pair up nicely with a dish that features lots of fresh, sautéed mushrooms. A bright dish with a finishing splash of lemon juice might respond well to a wine with a nice, bright citrus flavor -- like Sauvignon Blanc. A cream sauce with shrimp will likely match up well with a creamy, buttery Chardonnay.

The nose has a powerful memory, so as you cook dinner, take care to notice aromas in your ingredients as you prepare them. Go ahead and put the mushrooms to your nose, give the lemon a sniff, breathe in the aromas of those freshly chopped herbs. This can help you pick out aromas in wines -- and give you ideas for food pairings.

Chicken cutlets with mushrooms, lemons, and capers

Some Top-Rated Recipes With Wine

Pan-Seared Chicken Breasts with Shallots

"I felt like a real chef with this one. The chicken was golden and beautiful.The shallots, wine, and some mushrooms were all a great combination of flavors!" -- BreaBren

Creamy White Wine Sauce

"The name says it all! A creamy, classic white wine sauce." -- sal

Wine Sauce for Seafood

"A delicious sauce made with white wine, butter, lemon, tarragon, garlic, and shallots. It is wonderful served over any baked or grilled white fish." -- Nicole0615

Quick Chicken And Wine

"This recipe was great. I sauteed mushrooms, garlic, and onions in olive oil then added the wine and simmered. I served the chicken over grated potato patties topped with wine sauce." -- love2cook

Sirloin Tips and Mushrooms

"Taste is robust and complex, despite the simplicity of the recipe! The red wine adds a lot to this recipe." -- Ana

Rosemary Braised Lamb Shanks

"Lamb shanks that are slowly simmered with fresh rosemary, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine. Great served with polenta, or my family's favorite--roasted garlic mashed potatoes--as you need something to soak up the wonderful sauce." -- S. HODGE

Mussels in White wine sauce
Photo by Kim's Cooking Now!.

Preserve Your Cooking Wine

Once you uncork a bottle of wine, oxygen is introduced into the scene, and the wine slowly begins to deteriorate. No matter how good or expensive the wine was to begin with, it will eventually turn to vinegar.

So taste any re-corked wine before you pour it into the pan -- bad wine won't magically transform itself into good sauce. Cooking with funky, vinegary wine could make the sauce taste sour.

One way to make the wine last a bit longer is to refrigerate it. The cold climate will slow the chemical changes. Another method is to transfer the leftover wine into a smaller bottle -- which will have less air in it. You can also buy fancy vacuum contraptions that suck the air out of the bottle. An even easier solution, of course, is to drink the wine with dinner before it goes bad!

The Best Wine and Food Pairings:

Find more recipes with wine as a key ingredient.

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