By Carl Hanson

Wine's complexity of flavors and aromas is one reason it works so well as an ingredient in cooking. It draws out flavors from foods as they cook. But there's no good sauce from bad wine. Here's how to ensure your cooking wine is in good shape to begin with -- and stays recipe-ready longer.

Photo by Meredith

When Good Wine Goes Bad

A bottle of wine is constantly changing. Often change is for the better, as various natural compounds (acids, tannins, sugars, and numerous other elements) mingle together, developing flavors and aromas. But once that bottle is opened and air is introduced into the scene, deterioration sets in. Not immediately, of course; at first, air may even help a wine open up in flavor and aroma. But eventually, oxygen destroys wine. A wine ruined by oxygen is said to be "oxidized."

Photo by Meredith

Keep this in mind when a recipe calls for wine. It's easy to reach for that half-full bottle you've kept in the cupboard for a week. But before you pour it into the pan, take a moment to determine its condition. Smell it. If it's off, you'll get a stale whiff of funky stewed fruit. If you're unsure, take a sip. There's no mistaking a wine gone bad; it will taste unpleasantly vinegary. If the wine has turned, cooking with it could make the dish taste sour.

Slow the Decay

One way to help wine last a bit longer is to refrigerate it. The cold climate slows chemical changes that will eventually destroy the wine. You can also buy fancy vacuum contraptions that suck the air out of the bottle. Another method is to transfer the leftover wine into a smaller bottle. A smaller bottle will have less air in it. I have also poured wine I intend to use for cooking into a plastic water bottle and then scrunched the bottle a bit, collapsing it to press out excess air.

The Dark Side of Cooking Wine

Instead of using prepared "cooking wines," cook with a wine you'd actually want to drink. There's really no reason to buy "cooking wines" from the store. Certainly there's nothing special about wines marketed as "cooking wines" -- nothing that makes them more suitable for cooking. In fact, cooking wines are often loaded with sodium to help preserve them.

So if "cooking wine" is all you have, be careful about any salt you add to the recipe, particularly if you're also using prepared stocks, broths, and other ingredients with added salts. You can turn a sauce into a sea of sodium in a hurry.

Another way to keep your cooking wine fresh longer is to use sherry, Marsala, or port -- that is, wines fortified with spirits. Their higher alcohol content helps slow the wine's degradation.

Try This Recipe

Sherry Braised Beef Short Ribs

In this recipe, a splash of sherry adds a little sweetness. If you're substituting table wine, choose a white wine that's on the sweet side, like a Riesling. Watch the video. Chef John will share the two keys for making amazing short ribs. And as Chef John says, the only way to mess up this recipe is if you ignore his advice and use cooking sherry instead of sherry sherry.

The Best Wine and Food Pairings:

Check out our collection of recipes that call for a splash or two of wine.