What Exactly Is Cooking Wine... and Is it OK to Use It?

A sommelier and a wine expert reveal the truth.

You’ve got your recipe picked out, your grocery list in hand, and you’ve almost finished your shopping. There’s just one more ingredient left: wine. Maybe you need some white for a seafood pasta or red for a hearty stew. Instead of wasting time trying to figure out which bottle to choose, should you just go for one that simply says “cooking wine” right there on the label? It’s cheap and it's supposedly made for cooking. What could go wrong?

A lot, apparently.

“Most chefs are rarely, if ever, using a product that says 'cooking wine' on it. It is a dying thing,” says sommelier John Laloganes, director of beverage management at Kendall College in Chicago, where he oversees the wine professional program. “These are just… low-quality products. If they care about food, they’re not going to use that.”

In addition to sporting the term “cooking wine,” these wines might tout words like “Burgundy” or “premium quality” that make them sound fancy… or at least sound legit. “It’s just branding, marketing, and garbage,” says Laloganes, who adds that as the market for decent wines at lower price points has grown in recent years, giving consumers more choices, makers of the bottom-of-the-barrel (pun intended) stuff have had to find other things to do with their products. “It’s nothing of substantial quality, so how do you sell it when no one is going to drink it? Well, let’s market it as cooking wine and almost confuse the public,” he explains.

While the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV) is usually similar to traditional wine (often around 11 percent), there are a few warning signs to look out for. First, the label might actually state that the wine isn’t meant to be a beverage. Second, it often includes an unwanted ingredient: salt.

 And if salty wine sounds pretty unappealing, well, that's the point. “Historically, [cooking wines] were slightly salted with the intention of dissuading the cooks from drinking the stuff in the kitchen. It was a way to manage the staff and deter them from being intoxicated during work,” Laloganes reveals.   

To make things even more confusing, there are fortified wines like Marsala, which most Americans use for cooking, not drinking (for example, Chicken Marsala). Still, resist the urge to grab a jug of the economy stuff.

“There’s a huge battle going on against the commercial cheap plonk,” says Carla Capalbo, who has lived in the Marsala region of Italy and has written 15 books on food and wine, including her recently released Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus. “The real Marsala wine is an ancient and noble wine, which is absolutely exquisite and wonderful, and you can get here. You don’t need much of it, but the difference would be extraordinary. It will give your dish a beautiful richness of flavor that you can’t get from the imitations.”

In terms of what chefs use for cooking, many often turn to what’s leftover in the dining room. “From a cost and efficiency standpoint, what makes sense is to use wine that maybe didn’t sell… the previous day or night or the previous couple days,” explains Laloganes. “It’s a very common practice. The wine’s not inferior, just stuff that may not be as fresh.”

So, sure, feel free to use a splash of something that’s a few days old, but just make sure it was something you liked in the first place.

“Wine is an ingredient like all the other ingredients in your dish. If it’s not good enough to drink, then why would you be cooking with it? If you use really poor-quality industrial wine, you’re not going to get any lovely grape flavor, which is what you’re looking for if you’re using wine in cooking,” adds Capalbo. “It’s not to say you have to buy a super-expensive wine, but I’d try and find a modest but well-made wine and work with that.” 

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