Like Julia Child before me, I enjoy cooking with wine, and find that it works just as well as a companion as it does an ingredient. I do my best to keep the house stocked with a few bottles, but every once in a while I’ll go to deglaze, only to find the wine rack empty. This is unfortunate, but not the end of the world, as there are a couple of great substitutes already in your pantry, and some of them even taste like wine.
Wine is a great cooking tool. You can use it to deglaze a pan, removing the little flavourful, caramelised bits that have stuck to the surface. Or you can pour it into a pasta sauce for extra oomph. No matter how I use it, I’m thankful for the fermented grapes and the depth of flavour they add. Nothing can replace the real thing in recipes that call for large (like, half a bottle) amounts of wine — you simply can’t make Coq au Vin without the vin — but these are great options for punching up your pasta sauce or deglazing the pan.
Red, Red Wine (Substitutes):
I’ve seen fruit juice, red wine vinegar and stock all recommended as good, alcohol-free deglazing options, but they never seemed quite right to me. Sure, they get the job done, unsticking all the little bits and whatnot, but the flavours need a little work. Straight fruit juice is too sweet, pure red wine vinegar is a bit too acidic and while stock adds flavour, it’s… well, the flavour of stock.
I wanted a deglazer that had a good balance of sweetness, acidity and fruit, so I mixed and matched until I found the perfect combinations. (I had to eat a lot of steak in the process, but I’m very selfless that way.)
Option One: A Mixture of Fruit Juice and Red Wine Vinegar
The Kitchn recommends a mixture of fruit juice and vinegar to mimic the taste and acidity of wine, so I started experimenting here. For the juice, I chose a 100 per cent juice pomegranate/cranberry blend that was sweetened with apple juice, as concord grape proved to be far too sweet when reduced. I seared a piece of ribeye (the first of many), getting a good crust all around, and then set it aside to rest while I deglazed as I normally would.
The Kitchn recommends one tablespoon of vinegar for a cup of fruit juice, but I wasn’t very satisfied with that. Flavour-wise, the acid was faint and it was too sweet. Wanting to up the acid, I tried a 50/50 mixture of juice and vinegar. The equal mixture of sweet and tart liquids results in a flavour that is — surprise! — more of a balance of sweet and tart flavours, and here we begin to approach the depth of flavour you would get from wine, albeit a sweeter red. If you are in the habit of cooking with sweeter wines like sweet sherry or Marsala (or if you’re making a dessert), you could stop here and be pretty pleased, but I wanted a flavour that mimicked a drier red.
Finally, I settled on a cup of red wine vinegar with two tablespoons juice. This ratio is my personal favourite, and if you’re a fan of cooking or deglazing with drier reds, I think it will be yours too. It’s fairly acid-forward, but a couple tablespoons of sweet juice keep it from being overly so. The fruit is there, but it kind of hangs out in the background rather than dominating.
Option Two: Kombucha
My kitchen is definitely more likely to be stocked with alcohol than kombucha, but maybe you’re a much more health-conscious individual than I, and thus have a few of these probiotic, fermented beverages in your fridge. If you are, then you’re in luck, because kombucha can be substituted for wine with pretty excellent results. If you think about it: it makes sense. Kombucha is fermented, it’s quite acidic, and there’s usually some sort of fruit action in there. (There’s also a trace amount of alcohol, which probably doesn’t contribute a whole lot in the way of flavour, but it’s good to know it’s there if you’re trying to abstain completely.)
The resulting pan sauce is similar to the 50/50 mixture of vinegar and juice, but with a bit more acid, and some funky fermented goodness that makes for a more interesting pan sauce. The outcome is of course going to depend on the type of kombucha you use (I used Synergy’s “Cosmic Cranberry”), but I think it would be fun to play around with different flavours. I bet a homebrewed variety would make a really interesting sauce with some fun flavours.
White (Wine) Lies:
I don’t drink a lot of white wine, and almost never have it lying around, so this portion of the experiment was very applicable to my life. Lemon juice, white grape juice, and white wine vinegar all come recommended, but again, I found the grape juice and vinegar to be a little one note when used on their own, and deglazing and reducing pure lemon juice proved to be overpoweringly acrid. Determined to find a more complex deglazing agent, I pan fried a few pieces of chicken breast in butter and tested a few concoctions.
Option One: A Mixture of White Grape Juice and White Wine Vinegar
A cup of white wine vinegar mixed with a single tablespoon of white grape juice proved to be the winner here. In fact, I had a hard timing telling it apart from the pan sauce I had made with actual white wine. It was bright, acidic, and just a bit fruity. In short: it’s perfect, and can be used on anything that goes well with white wine.
I also tried a 50/50 mixture of the juice and vinegar and, similar to the 50/50 mixture above, it was pretty close to the balance of sweet and tart you would get with a sweet white wine. If you like a sweet sauce on your poultry (like those little toothpick-skewered samples they hand out at the mall), then this is a pretty good option. I wouldn’t recommend it for more delicate seafood though; it would completely overwhelm a scallop.
Option Two: A Mixture of White Grape and Lemon Juices
Pure lemon doesn’t work, but a 50/50 mixture of fresh lemon and white grape juice is pretty divine. Lemon is still the primary flavour here, but the white grape adds some sugar and fruitiness to help calm it down. Use this on anything where you want lemon at the forefront, like chicken piccata or prawns.
So next time you find yourself in a kitchen that is lacking in wine, don’t panic, and use one of the options above. Better yet, you could just go straight for one of these and save the wine for drinking. I like wine in my food and all, but I like it even more in my mouth.