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Which Wine Is Best For Cooking?

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It's with some humility that we must change our stance on a long-held belief of ours:

For years, we've insisted that you do not need to cook with great wine -- or even barely passable wine for that matter. And for years, leftover wine -- usually the dregs of bottles that we haven't finished for one reason or another -- have sat on our counter tops or in our cupboards ready to be used in our next foray into the kitchen.

The reason for this long held belief is because a number of years ago, when Erin was a server at a leading Bay Street resto, she asked the chef his thoughts on cooking with wine.

At the time, he was riding a wave of "It Chef" status, and was often quoted and featured in many of Toronto's foodie publications, so he certainly had the cred to give an answer Erin would adopt as her own cooking belief. He told her even if a wine was left on the counter top for a year in a hot kitchen in direct sunlight, it could still be cooked with. His food was amazing, so that was all Erin needed to hear.

Sharing her answer with me, her sister, we went on our merry culinary ways, saving the dregs of left over, unconsumed bottles, the wine's fate now redirected from wine glass to cooking pot.

Qualifier: if we found a bottle to be corked or somehow undrinkable because of technically flawed reasons, we returned it or threw it out. Only wine that was once drinkable, but somehow forgotten about, went into the food we cooked. Usually there wasn't that much left over, and as almost daily cooks, wines rarely sat around for too long.

However, something happened to Erin the other day that has forever changed her mind about this long belief. Reaching for the nearest bottle of "cooking" red, she happily added it to a coq au vin she was whipping up on one of the more recent rainy, cool days Toronto experienced a few weeks ago. The aroma that wafted out was less-than pleasant: a sort of mix of vinegar, rancid walnuts & stale port (FYI -- the red did not begin life as a port). The resulting flavour not much better, and now laced through the dish.

One bad ingredient, and hours of work plus the anticipation of yummy, soul-warming, comfort food on a cold day, down the drain -- literally. Uneatable, Erin dumped out the whole thing and had PB&J for dinner.

Likely this particular bottle of cooking wine was somehow pushed to the back of the line and left for way too long -- and Erin should have given it a whiff just to ensure it was still palatable, but she didn't and suffered the consequences.

Now, some will argue you should only use the best -- if you wouldn't put it in your glass, why would you put it in the pot? -- and we say please invite us to dinner if you're adding a nice Chateauneuf to your stew, but our budgets are a tad more meagre, so we get by with a bottle of something a little more modest.

We now buy wines specifically designated for cooking: usually less than $10, but still something that will taste fresh and pleasant, with elevated acidity to add a nice bit of nuance and balance the flavours in the meal.

We find for our money, Argentinian Rieslings with their ripe stone fruit and tropical notes add some great dimension to a dish calling for white wine, and for dishes in need of red, inexpensive, simple Chianti's with its bright red cherry, are generally a safe bet.

That's how we roll in the kitchen, but we'd love to know how many of you only cook with the best, whipping up five-star creations with Barolo braises and Amarone roasts, and how many prefer to keep it simple with bargain bottles to create delicious dishes.

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