If you want to add a depth of flavor and richness to your dishes then using red wine for cooking can be a great option. Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a home cook experimenting with flavors, understanding the qualities that make a red wine suitable for cooking is essential.

pouring red wine in pan

In this blog, we’ll explore the world of cooking with red wine and answer common questions to help you find the perfect bottle for your next kitchen adventure.

Why cook with red wine?

Here are several reasons why red wine is commonly used in cooking:

  • Flavor Enhancement: Red wine contributes depth of flavor to dishes, enhancing the overall taste and adding richness and acidity. It can add complexity and balance to both savory and sweet recipes.
  • Tenderizing Meat: The acidity in red wine helps tenderize meat by breaking down proteins. This is particularly beneficial in marinades and braises, giving you more succulent and flavorful meat.
  • Aromatics: As red wine simmers or reduces, the alcohol evaporates, leaving behind concentrated flavors that can elevate the aroma of the entire dish.
  • Reductions and Sauces: Red wine reductions are a common technique in cooking. By simmering and reducing the wine, you create a flavorful sauce that can be drizzled over meats or used as a base for other sauces. Red wine and steak is a classic pairing!

So, how do you choose a good red wine for cooking? Does it make a difference if it’s a merlot or a cab sav, cheap or expensive? Actually, yes it does! Here’s how to pick.

Key Qualities of a Good Red Wine for Cooking

What should you look for when you’re picking a red wine for cooking specifically? There are a few guidelines which should serve you well whenever you’re picking your next bottle.

Close up of slow cooked beef
  • Dry red wine with low residual sugar: Opt for dry red wines with low residual sugar, as sweetness can alter the balance of savory dishes. Dry red wines enhance the flavors of your recipes without introducing unwanted sweetness.
  • Good balance of acidity and tannins: The best red wines for cooking are those with robust flavors and a good balance of acidity and tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are popular choices, each contributing unique characteristics to different dishes.
  • Substitute for Red Wine in Cooking: In case you find yourself without red wine, substitutes like beef or vegetable broth, red grape juice, or balsamic vinegar can add depth and complexity to your recipes.

Different Types of Red Wine for Cooking

So now you know the basics, what red wine varietals should you be adding to your basket? Here are some of the best ones to grab for cooking.

Cabernet Sauvignon

close up on label of cabernet sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent choice for cooking red wine due to its bold flavor profile, high tannins, and rich structure.

Suitable for:

  • Red Meat Dishes: Cabernet Sauvignon pairs exceptionally well with red meats such as beef, lamb, and venison. Use it in braises, stews, and marinades to impart a rich, savory flavor.
  • Red Wine Reductions: Create luxurious red wine reductions for sauces by simmering Cabernet Sauvignon with aromatics like shallots, garlic, and herbs. This reduction can elevate dishes like steak or roasted meats.
  • Tomato-Based Sauces: The acidity of Cabernet Sauvignon can enhance the flavors of tomato-based sauces, making it a great choice for pasta dishes, lasagnas, and Bolognese.

Recipe Ideas:


close up of merlot wine label

Merlot is a versatile red wine that can be a wonderful choice for cooking due to its softer and fruitier profile compared to more tannic varieties. While Merlot has tannins, they are generally softer than those found in wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, making it a good choice for a variety of dishes.

Suitable for:

  • Poultry and Pork: Merlot pairs well with lighter meats such as chicken, turkey, and pork. It can be used in marinades or as part of the cooking liquid for roasts and braises.
  • Tomato-Based Sauces: The fruitiness of Merlot complements tomato-based sauces, making it suitable for pasta dishes, casseroles, and lasagnas.
  • Stews and Casseroles: Merlot can add depth to hearty stews and casseroles without overwhelming the dish.

Recipe Ideas:

Pinot Noir

close up on pinot noir label

Pinot Noir is a popular wine for drinking thanks to its light to medium-bodied character. These qualities also make it suitable for cooking a variety of dishes without overpowering them. It often exhibits red fruit flavors like cherry and raspberry, along with subtle earthy and herbal notes.

Suitable for:

  • Poultry and Game Birds: pairs well with poultry and game birds, adding a subtle complexity without overwhelming the delicate flavors.
  • Mushroom Dishes: an excellent choice for dishes featuring mushrooms, such as risottos or sautéed mushrooms.
  • Salmon and Light Fish: suitable for cooking with salmon or other light fish, especially when creating sauces or reductions.

Recipe Ideas:


This red cooking wine is known for its bold, fruit-forward profile. It’s very full-bodied, with flavors of blackberry, raspberry, and sometimes a hint of spiciness. Zinfandel often has moderate to high tannin levels and an unusually high alcohol content, contributing to its structure.

Suitable for:

  • Barbecue Sauces: an excellent choice for creating barbecue sauces. The sweetness of the wine can balance the smokiness of grilled meats.
  • Spicy Dishes: pairs well with dishes that have a bit of heat, such as spicy chili or Cajun-style dishes.
  • Rich Stews and Braises: Use Zinfandel in rich stews and braises, particularly those involving red meat like beef or lamb.

Recipe Ideas:


a bottle of liquid

Malbec typically has moderate tannins, providing structure without being overly astringent – so it’s not too harsh or dry. Experienced wine drinks will tell you that it has well-rounded flavors of blackberry, plum, and sometimes hints of chocolate or mocha.

Suitable for:

  • Red Meat Dishes: Malbec is superb for enhancing the flavors of red meat dishes. Use it in marinades, braises, and reductions to complement the richness of beef, lamb, or venison.
  • Hearty Stews: an excellent choice for hearty stews and casseroles, infusing them with deep, savory notes.
  • Grilled Meats: Ideal for marinating and basting grilled meats, adding a layer of complexity to the smoky flavors.

Recipe Ideas:


a bottle of wine and a glass of wine on a table

It is known for its vibrant acidity, which adds freshness to dishes. Chianti often features bright red cherry and floral notes, contributing a delightful fruitiness.

Suitable for:

  • Italian Cuisine: A classic choice for Italian dishes as it pairs well with tomato-based sauces, pasta, and recipes featuring herbs like basil and oregano.
  • Poultry and Pork: Its medium body makes it suitable for lighter meats such as chicken and pork. Use it in marinades or cooking liquids to add depth.
  • Mediterranean Flavors: Chianti complements the flavors of Mediterranean cuisine, making it versatile for a variety of dishes.

Recipe Ideas:


close up on barolo wine label

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape, known for producing wines with great depth and aging potential. It is known for its complex and elegant flavor profile, often described as having layers of red fruit, floral, and earthy notes.

Suitable for:

  • Hearty and Rich Dishes: well-suited for hearty, rich dishes, particularly those featuring red meats like beef or game.
  • Braised Meats: It excels in braised dishes, adding a luxurious depth to cuts like short ribs or osso buco.
  • Truffle-Infused Recipes: Barolo’s earthy undertones make it an excellent choice for truffle-infused recipes or dishes with wild mushrooms.

Recipe Ideas:

FAQs on Red Wine for Cooking

Can all red wines be used for cooking?

While most red wines can be used for cooking, avoid extremely sweet or low-quality wines. Ideally, dry wine is better. Quality does impact the final taste, so choose a wine suited for the recipe you’re going to cook.

Can I substitute red wine in cooking recipes?

Yes, you can substitute red wine in recipes. Choose a wine with a similar flavor profile; for instance, if a recipe calls for Merlot, you can use another medium-bodied red like Cabernet Sauvignon. You can also use red wine vinegar, worcestershire sauce, or balsamic vinegar in a pinch.

When a recipe calls for red wine, what should I use?

Choose a red wine that complements the flavors of your dish. For general cooking, versatile options include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Pinot Noir.

What is the best red wine to cook with beef?

For beef, opt for bold reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. These wines complement the richness of beef dishes, adding depth and complexity.

Choosing Red Wine for Cooking

Selecting the ideal red wine for cooking is straightforward. Opt for flavors that complement your dish, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Steer clear of overly sweet options. Begin with a small amount and taste as you go. Find a balance between cost and quality; expensive wines aren’t necessary. Elevate your dishes with the perfect red wine!