I’m not one to take issue with the late, great Julia Child — except I’ve never been able to buy into her dictum, “If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.” I have never had the heart to “waste” a fairly expensive wine by cooking with it, especially for recipes using a substantial quantity of wine. Julia’s own Boeuf Bourguinon and Coq au Vin recipes for four to six people call for three cups of “young, full-bodied red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Chianti.”
When I made Coq au Vin last week, I used some nouveau Beaujolais left over from Thanksgiving (!!!) that wasn’t great to drink then and certainly couldn’t have improved with age. (Disclaimer: One of our guests had brought the Georges Duboeuf liter-and-half nouveau. Only in the best year would this near-jug wine be a good risk for a holiday dinner for a dozen guests, and it was one that we probably would not have chosen.) Still, 3 1/2 months later, no one noticed or complained about the Coq au Vin due to the inferior wine that I used.
Therefore, thank you, Julia Moskin, New York Times food section staff writer, for “It Boils Down to This: Cheap Wine Works Fine” in today’s paper. She laid to rest what she calls “the new gospel: Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” She cooked four dishes with three kinds of wine from very inexpensive to very dear. Her conclusion validates my long-time contention that wine doesn’t need to be divinely drinkable in order to work admirably in a recipe.
She wrote, “Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.
“It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.”
The rule of thumb for recipe success seems to be to use red, white, dry, sweet or whatever called for in a particular dish but not to worry too much about the price tag on the bottle. It’s one I’ve always used.