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Cooking with wine — the right way

Learning to let wine mingle with food flavors, create perfection on the table

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Posted: Saturday, March 20, 2010 12:00 am

Dear Barbara: I would like to try to do more cooking on my own (without following a recipe). I like to cook with wine because it gives dishes a nice little extra flavor.

When is the best time to add it? Should I wait till it has been cooking a little while? Do I stir it in at the end? I know that if you start with it, you could cause a fire.

Also, some wines contain sulfites. Is this going to cook down and change the flavor, or ruin the flavor, of the dish?

— Sharyl from Lodi

Dear Sharyl: It's great that you are learning to cook without a book! You develop a sense of what spices and herbs go well with the other ingredients.

When you are cooking with wine, you want it to simmer with all the other flavors. It reduces the wine, which concentrates the flavor and it cooks off a good portion of the alcohol. If you add wine to your dish while cooking, give it time to mingle with the other flavors before you taste it. Then you can decide if it needs more wine or is good the way it is. Too much wine, or wine that is added too late, can overpower the flavor of the dish and add a harsh or acidic taste. You just want it to enhance the flavor.

As for the sulfites, they will dissipate while cooking. You don't have to worry about them.

Dear Barbara: My neighbor and I were talking and we would like to know the difference between lamb and mutton. They are both sheep, or we think they are. Thank you.

— Wanda from Lodi

Dear Wanda: Yes, they are both sheep, just as veal and beef are both cattle. The word 'lamb' indicates a young sheep, definitely under a year old. Mutton would be an older sheep over a year old and as much as two years old. Mutton becomes very tough and has a strong taste. Lamb, even though some parts are relatively tough and need to be braised, is more tender than mutton and has a milder flavor.

We do raise lamb in the United States, but not nearly as much as in countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Since the lamb in the U.S. is raised mainly for the meat, it is grain fed and is milder and meatier. Other countries usually let the sheep roam and feed on the grasses because they are also used for the wool. Therefore, they have less meat.

It seems a bit odd, but American lamb is going to cost you more than imported lamb.

Unless it was mislabeled, I have never seen mutton in a store, but I was served mutton on a kabob in a restaurant years ago. The server said it was lamb, but once you taste it, you just know. I thought it inedible; tough, strong flavored, very unpleasant. Lamb, on the other hand, if cooked properly, is just delicious!

Dear Barbara: I have a question about slow-cookers. I was cooking chicken and it wasn't quite done, but almost and it was getting late. Could I have kept it covered, keeping the heat inside and turned it off when I went to bed? I get up early and would have been able to bring the heat back up. Would it still be good the next morning?

— Dorothy from Stockton

Dear Dorothy: It would be OK if you left it on low for the night, but of course, the chicken would then be overcooked. Never, under any circumstances, should you turn off the cooker and leave the food in it overnight! It doesn't matter how early you get up, the food has been in the danger zone (under 140 degrees) for more than two hours.

Tip of the week! When cooking with wine, or any liquor, remove the pan from the heat before you add the alcohol. This prevents it from igniting while it is on the burner.

Barbara Spitzer is a Lodi home cook who also develops recipes for specific consumer products. Do you have a cooking question? Send it to Barbara Spitzer at Please include your first name and city.



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