The gourmet’s pantry is stocked with an array of wines and spirits. These ingredients add dimension to the dish; they are like accessories on one’s outfit, and it can be fun to compose them into the cooking. As with accessories, there are a few rules and guidelines to follow.
First of all, the alcohol must be of an acceptable quality, would you drink it? There are some who swear by marinara made from boxed wine, I shudder.
Second, the alcohol must be cooked off, either in the oven, or on the burner flamed or slowly reduced. The exception would be desserts where the sweetness can take on the alcohol.
Then it depends on the type of alcohol.
For white wines one must play on subtlety and nuances. Refreshing and acidic wines are lovely when braising pork and poultry, or when preparing a poaching or steaming liquid for seafood. These can also be used as a base for jams, or risotto. I also reduce them with sugar to a syrup, this can make virgin cocktails for children; or without sugar to yield a liquid that can be used as one would any acid. Where white wine is too light, Vermouth can be used in combination. In cooking we generally use dry Vermouth. When making a sauce that will accompany fish or poultry, a white wine with more body can be used, it could even be one raised in oak barrels. All can be used to deglaze a pan for jus, or an eventual sauce. The food I cook is from France, so I use French wine, vin de pays, IGP, or village crus. Avoid wine from Savoie, it’s mostly garbage. For Vermouth, it is Noilly Prat. Locally, there’s garbage wine everywhere, it probably has a clever name and a fun label to detract from the fact that the bottle contains crap. If it’s less than $10, it’s surely garbage, I am very skeptical when someone tells me they discovered a gem from the Okanagan for under $10.
Sweet white wines are not often used in cooking. There are late harvest wines, ice wines, or fortified wines. I have used them to make foie gras mousse. They could be used in a sauce, but a harmonious balance must be struck, so it will have to accompany a meat with some character. In general, where a sweet sauce is called for – such as with pork or wild birds – fruit, or fruit juice, or even syrup or honey are used rather than sweet wine. This kind of wine is like the showy hats or fascinators the Brits like to wear, and in cooking, the wine is almost never the statement piece. However where desserts are concerned, why not? A sweet and savoury foie gras crème brûlée à la Sauternes is absolutely delicious. Macerating fruits in a muscat from Beaumes-de-Venise is so refreshing and delightful. Local winemakers try with late harvest wines, but I don’t find them to be interesting. Ice wines are too valuable to be used for this purpose. I only know one winemaker that does a fortified muscat and it’s not bad at all.