If you've ever encountered a recipe that calls specifically for "cooking wine" and found yourself with questions, you're far from alone. Designated cooking wine is an ingredient you'll typically find shelved close to the vinegars in most grocery stores, and although it does contain alcohol, it's considered a food product. So, what makes the cooking variety different from the wine in your glass, and should you keep a bottle of it on hand? Our writer digs in to find out. 

Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

So you have a hoary bottle of cooking wine kicking around your pantry. It’s probably taking up a good amount of space, and you’d heard that it might be good for only a year or so after opening. Maybe yours has been there for a couple years, or perhaps it’s brand-new—but either way, is it worth keeping, or should it go down the drain? And what exactly is “cooking wine,” anyways? Let’s take a closer look.

What It Is

“Cooking wine” (as opposed to wine you simply cook with) is a high-alcohol, salt- and preservative-laced substance that can stay good for up to 16 months, depending on the brand. According to Time Inc.Food Studios coordinator and onetime chef Mark Driskill, most of us tend to own “red cooking wine” or “Sherry cooking wine,” and more occasionally, white. The label of the “red wine” from Holland House reads, “Wine, Salt, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Potassium Metabisulfite (Preservative).” Fortified wines, on the other hand, include Madeira, Marsala, Port, and sometimes sherry, and don’t tend to contain added salt or preservatives. These are amped up with additional alcohol to keep them shelf-stable.

What “Cooking Wine” Tastes Like

Really salty,” says Driskill. With as much as a teaspoon of salt per cup or more, it’s no surprise that “you taste the sodium, you taste the salinity.” If you were adding a splash of cooking wine to a dish, you’d be adding an intensely salty note and a lot of flavor. You’ll taste those additives, warns Driskill, and if you were, say, making a sauce, you’d need to cut the cooking wine with water or stock, and “adjust the salt and seasoning of everything around it.” Unlike a “normal” bottle or box of wine, you won’t get the subtlety of the grape itself, such as the notes of chocolate and tobacco in some reds, or the light acid and grassiness in some whites. If you’ve never tasted your cooking wine straight, today’s the day to be brave, says Driskill. Try a tiny splash—spit it out if need be—so you know what you’re working with. When you’re thumped with salt and flavor, you might reconsider its position of power in your kitchen.

What to Consider Buying Instead

If you drink wine, Driskill urges you to look into boxed wine. “It’s unbelievable for cooking, comes in a three-liter box, and nowadays it’s just as good as bottles you can get.” Boxed wines come in tons of different varietals, and the nature of the high-tech boxes and bags that are used keep oxygen—wine’s nemesis—out, and wine fresh for up to four to six weeks. And they’re a fraction of the cost of a bottle. Driskill likes Black Box and Bota Box for reds, and Bandit when he wants a white wine. Many of these—such as Black Box—are shelf-stable for up to a year before you open them (although it’s best to open them sooner), which means you can sock one away in the pantry for last-minute summer parties.

Which Wines Should I Use in Cooking?

Driskill’s go-to cooking red is Shiraz, so if you see a decently priced bottle—in a box or in a bottle—grab it. For white, he’d go with Sauvignon Blanc, and steer clear of Chardonnay, which can be oaky or melony. But it’s also smart to have a bottle of Madeira, Sherry, or Marsala around—especially if you like to make lush sauces—because you’ll need a bit for certain dishes. (I’ve even, in a pinch, used bourbon to deglaze pork chop and chicken roasting pans to make gravy, and was very happy with the result.)

I Don’t Drink. Help!

This is tricky: Cooking wine of any stripe is going to contain alcohol. If you’re not willing to have wine in the house at all, but you want that bright, flavor-saturated flavor profile of wine, consider a good bottle of sherry vinegar, which is arguably superior to cooking wine in flavor, and is simply sherry that has turned into vinegar—adding a good bump of acid to a dish. I’m smitten with the La Posada sherry vinegar I picked up for about $18, using it to deglaze skillets after sautéing onions, finishing a gravy or a wine-based dish, or even brightening up a simple bowl of cannellini beans, garlic, and shallots spiked with herbs. If a dish needs salt, I just add it—a little bit at a time, so I don’t drown in it.

So consider whether you really need that cooking wine, or whether it’s one more place in your pantry that you can experiment with something tastier.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.