Cooking With Wine: Tomato Sauce

Some will say that you can use any old wine when you make a homemade tomato sauce, but be wary of that kind of advice. As Julia Child once said, “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.”

Wines – just like tomatoes and oregano – are an ingredient in their own right, and they can make a difference in the finished dish. This isn’t to say that a cheap wine is a bad choice; nowadays, inexpensive wines can be good too, and they can work well in your tomato sauce.

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Testing tomato sauceAsk any of our chefs during an Italy cooking class and they’ll tell you: don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. That’s because while the alcohol itself doesn’t necessarily flavor the food – it’s working to release the flavor molecules of other ingredients – attributes of the wine, like tannins, can really affect the finished product too.

And that’s especially true of your homemade tomato sauce. So when you pick out those fresh plum tomatoes to make sauce – whether you’re canning it for later use, or using that sauce that same day – keep these tips in mind when cooking with wine.

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For starters, create the base of your sauce first – typically, a mirepoix – and then add the wine. The wine should also always go in before you throw the tomatoes into the pot. The wine should then reduce by about half. The more the wine reduces? The thicker the sauce, and the more concentrated the flavors.

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TomatoesBut which wines should you use in a tomato sauce exactly? Always consider the wine’s tannins and acidity, as those are the two factors that will affect the sauce’s flavor the most. If you’re making a meat sauce, like Bolognese sauce – which hails from the region of Emilia-Romagna, red wines with a lot of tannins, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, typically work well. That’s because the tannins will add some tartness to the dish. But be wary of using a wine with a high tannin content in a sauce that won’t feature any meat, because the tannins can make the dish astringent.

As for vegetarian sauces, opt for a wine with fewer tannins, like Pinot Noir, or even a white wine. In fact, all’Amatriciana sauces, which go well over seafood dishes, can be really enhanced by dry whites like Pinot Grigio.

Also consider the level of acidity in the wine, especially since tomatoes themselves have a bunch of acidity. This means that any wine you add to the sauce should have some acidity as well, otherwise the flavors of the wine will be completely overwhelmed. In terms of tomato sauce and balancing acidity, you can’t go wrong with a Chianti Classico, or other wines made with the Sangiovese grape. (You can learn how to make a Chianti Classico sauce during our Cook in the Heart of Chianti cooking vacation).

Still not sure which wine you want to use in your tomato sauce? If you love drinking that glass of wine with the finished product, chances are, it’ll taste well in the sauce as well. Alternatively, pick a wine that has a similar aroma or flavor profile as the ingredients you’re using to make the sauce. Just make sure you don’t drink all that wine while cooking, so you have some wine to put into the sauce in the first place!

By Liz Hall

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