How to Choose the Best Cooking Wine for Pantry Dishes

By: Kristine Hansen

It’s a myth that one should use only the lowest-quality bottle in the cellar when adding cooking wine to a dish. But would you also use store-brand canned tomatoes (and not Marzano, imported from Italy) instead of fresh, chopped tomatoes in a quest to cook minestrone? Or choose a cheap cut of steak for an anniversary meal? Similarly, don’t pour half a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck” Chardonnay into your Linguine with Clams recipe, or a discounted Sherry into lobster bisque. Trust us, you’ll taste the disaster on the first bite.

What is Cooking Wine?

No ingredient folded into the cooking process should ever be compromised in its quality, whether it’s liquid or solids. If, as the chef, you are in pursuit of nothing less than excellent taste, treat the wine as you would any other ingredient. At the same time, cooking wines are not necessarily lying in wait in your cellar. They are typically younger, more affordable wines—with some exceptions, including spirits like Marsala, Cognac or Sherry—that impart additional flavor to the dish.

From cramped Manhattan apartments to country estates in Napa and Aspen, nearly everyone is getting through this period of self-quarantine by experimenting in the kitchen, playing around with pantry staples in a way that time, until now, never allowed. With wine shops and grocery stores posting limited hours and decreased stock, this could mean that whipping up a tasty meal means using what’s ready to drink from the cellar — or the ingredients collecting dust in the pantry.

Still, there are a few primers to follow when choosing the best wines to use for cooking. After all, perusing a recipe often only yields whether the wine should be white or red, dry or sweet. Rarely will it suggest a grape varietal or, even deeper yet, a
region from where that wine was sourced. And you are never going to see a recipe author suggest a vintage. The good news is that this lack of detail only means you have more flexibility.

Another dilemma with choosing the best wine for cooking is the knowledge that you are unlikely to use the entire bottle in the dish. Also, what you and your guests will be sipping as a food pairing may not be this same wine. This is another reason why it’s wise to plot out two or three nights in a row where you plan to use a particular bottle of wine for cooking, so the wine doesn’t go to waste. (Don’t forget to pour yourself a glass while you cook!)

Best White Wine for Cooking 

Photo by Valeria Boltneva via Pexels.

What white wine is best for cooking? The key here is to opt for crisp and dry white wines so that the flavor notes added by the wine don’t change the dish. In general, some of the best white wine to cook with includes dry and crisp white-wine varietals such as Italian Pinot Grigio (or, the California or Oregon counterpart of Pinot Gris) and unoaked California Chardonnay (avoid those that include tropical-fruit notes, which will not pair well with, say, a Puttanesca sauce with cod). Chablis from France’s Burgundy region is another solid choice, for its backbone of chalkiness that can stand up to food with ease. Domaine William Fèvre’s Chablis can run about $22 to $25 per bottle, and you will probably be convinced to pour the rest in your glass (it’s that good).

Use Sauvignon Blanc sparingly in recipes, and try to avoid a Marlborough, New Zealand expression of the grape because that wine’s grassiness and tropical-fruit notes will nearly dominate your dish. Instead, opt for a California Sauvignon Blanc. One of the best regions in California for Sauvignon Blanc is Napa but many of those wines can command a high price point. Sterling Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc (around $15) will work, as will Franciscan’s Chardonnay (priced at around $14, in part because the winery owns the Napa land that it farms).

Best Red Wine for Cooking 

Cabernet Sauvignon is the king when it comes to red wine for cooking. There are so many options, from braised lamb shanks and Boeuf Bourguignon to your favorite chili recipe.

But the bad news is that they can often—when considering quality—cost somewhere between $75 to $100 per bottle. Skew downwards from that price point with a California option like Raymond Vineyards R Collection Cabernet Sauvignon ($12). As part of the Boisset Collection wine group, which spans vineyards in France, California, England and India, the wine is crafted by highly skilled winemakers. When turning to Cabernet Sauvignon for cooking, look for a medium-bodied wine with moderate tannins. You want the wine to soften the food, not dominate.

Other red wines that are ideal for cooking are Chianti (made from Sangiovese grapes), Merlot, and Pinot Noir. The reason is that these are all dry options, designed to complement your food, not destroy it with fruit-forward flavors that don’t necessarily jive with savory notes. 

Cooking with Sparkling Wine

Can you use sparkling wine for cooking? Yes. This is not a time to pull out the pricey Champagne, but also don’t turn to a sweet Moscato or Prosecco. As a general rule, for all white wines, dry and crisp are your friends—not sweet and fruity. If you’ve ever used coconut oil to fry up vegetables on the stove-top and then not liked the sweet accents, this is the same thing. Keep the sweetness out of your savory dish from the beginning.

What are some dry, sparkling wines options from around the world? Gruet Winery, in New Mexico, crafts a $15 non-vintage Brut (a mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, just like its French cousin). Not only is this wine of excellent quality, it’s also on the affordable side compared to its Napa and Sonoma bubbly siblings. With a French winemaker at the helm, the brand has national distribution. Wine Spectator awarded the wine 90 points.

Another sparkling wine that’s ideal for cooking is from Freixenet, crafted just outside of Barcelona, Spain, in the Penedès region. Cava has been made from this producer since 1861 and the quality has held steady across many vintages, along with a modest price point ($10-$20 per bottle, depending on the product). A favorite for cooking wine is the dry Cordon Negro (many people recognize the black label with gold lettering). Sold in 130 countries, you may even find this on your next vacation, to enjoy back at your villa’s kitchen. The trio of grapes in this wine are Parellada (40%), Macabeo (35%) and Xarel-lo (25%).

Cooking with Rosé

Photo by Vincenzo Landino on Unsplash.

Save those South-of-France pale Rosés to sip on a sunny day. For cooking, a better alternative is a heavier-on-the-palate Rosé, which might feature grapes such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. Look for a garnet hue to the Rosé, which is likely coming from the aforementioned grapes. But at the same time, you want to stay away from a sweeter-style Rosé. This is where tasting is key, because each Rosé is its own personality. California Rosés crafted from Pinot Noir tend to be a safe bet because they add a certain amount of crispness. But if you plan to fold Rosé wine into a dessert, consider a heavier-bodied Rosé that may even appear red—not pink—in the glass.

Although Rosé wine is a very diverse category, plenty of wine experts have already done the research (ahem, tasting!) for you. This Wine Enthusiast article about cooking with wine features a dedicated section for Rosés, with options that earned high scores but have a low price-tag. Among those is the Brick & Mortar Rosé ($8), from California.

Best Cognac to Cook With

When it comes to this twice-distilled wine (also referred to as a brandy), because it’s been made in France’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine region since the 16th century, there really isn’t a bad pick. You can’t go wrong as long as you select cognac. What types of dishes are best suited for cooking with this spirit? If the sauce is already rich, creamy and thick—such as a cheesy or sugar-rich sauce—then a dash of cognac is perfect. If you wish to amp up your cheese fondue or chocolate sauce, cognac is also an ideal ingredient.

Crafted from grapes that are—above all—dry, a cognac must feature at least 90% Ugni blanc, Folle blanc and Colombard, with the remaining 10% of the grape composition coming from a variety of predesignated grapes that includes the popular Sémillon.

Just like with wine tasting and culinary experimentation, personal tastes will differ when considering which cooking wine to use. There is no right or wrong answer for what type of wine to add to a dish, which is why recipe authors don’t go out on a limb by suggesting one. And if you’ve ever toyed around with spices, know that cooking wines are quite similar. Some people like a heavy dose of wine in their cooking while others prefer only a scant trace. The process of stockpiling a stash of cooking wines in your home may take time, but the trials and tribulations in discovering your favorites might be just as fun as tasting the wine-infused dishes that come out of your kitchen.

Portrait of Kristine Hansen with a glass of wineAbout Kristine Hansen 

Covering art/design, food/drink and travel, Kristine Hansen has contributed to Wine EnthusiastTravel and Leisure‘s website and Conde Nast Traveler‘s website as well as She is also the author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State’s Best Creameries (Globe Pequot Press).