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Cooking or “fortified” wines like Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala often are overlooked but they are great wines for drinking and making meals better. Keeping these wines after you pop the cork is a challenge for many people. So what are the best practices for storing cooking wines?
Unopened cooking wine should be stored at 53–57˚F, 60-70% humidity, in a wine refrigerator, lying flat for 1-6 years. Opened cooking wine will last 20-30 days and should be stored upright with a wine stopper in the kitchen refrigerator. Sweeter fortified wines can last a few days longer than more savory wines.
The fortified wines covered on this page are ideal for cooking. Fortified refers to the strength of the base wine being bolstered by the addition of distilled spirits to bring the alcohol level to 18% or 20%. Some fortified cooking wines keep up to a month or even two as long as they are refrigerated. We will go into this in more detail below.
As with all wines, fortified wines used for cooking will lose their vibrant flavors more quickly due to exposure to light and heat. Two of the most popular fortified wines used for cooking are Madeira and Marsala. These two wines are most commonly called for in recipes. You want to buy these wines as they are and not as “cooking Madeira wine” or “cooking Marsala wine”.
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Cooking with Wine & Storage
In order to choose the best wine for cooking, you must decide what flavors and styles you want to work with. You can break these styles into six main categories – dry red and white, dry nutty wines, sweet nutty wines, sweet whites, and sweet reds.
As we mentioned above, the biggest difference between a bottle labeled cooking wine and regular wine is quality. Wine bottles labeled cooking wine often have an abundance of sweeteners, preservatives, and salt which will make your dish taste overly sweet, overly salty, and oftentimes metallic.
Let’s look at three popular wines for cooking and their characteristics.
Unopened Madiera will last 2-6 years when stored in 53–57˚F consistent temperatures, 60-70% humidity, complete darkness, and laying flat with a wine fridge or cellar.
Many people have never heard of Madeira or the tiny group of islands in Portugal where it comes from. This wine is not always easy to find but remember, don’t use wine labeled cooking Madeira!
Madeira is a white fortified wine and comes with various classifications, including grape and age.
When buying Madeira you must consider the sweetness level. The types are Sercial (dry), Verdelho (off-dry), Bual (sweet), and Malmsey (very sweet). The level of sweetness also matters when deciding how long the wine will keep as described later.
When cooking with Madeira, it’s important to remember the wine will reduce and get even sweeter than its original version. Unless you are making a super sweet dish like something with a demi-glaze, you’ll want a Sercial or Verdelho (these are also the least expensive).
Madeira is fortified with brandy. This makes it a high alcohol wine and one that will last longer than others in the fortified category. The method of production includes the wine being oxidized and heated (a process named modernization named for the wine).
Unopened Madeira will last months and even years when stored in a cool, dry place.
Opened Madeira (with a cork) will last 28-30 days in a kitchen refrigerator. The sweeter style will last longer open – either the max 30 days or even several days past that.
Unopened Marsala will last 2-6 years when stored in 53–57˚F consistent temperatures, 60-70% humidity, complete darkness, and laying flat with a wine fridge or cellar. Marsala is a fortified Italian wine from Sicily which is available either dry or sweet.
Using sweet Marsala lends a rich, nutty, caramelized flavor to mushroom sauces in popular dishes like Chicken Marsala. Sweet Marsala can also be used in desserts. A great example is a zabaglione, a classic custard sauce that is commonly served with fresh berries.
Dry Marsala is most commonly used to deglaze a pan of roasted shellfish or meaty fish adding depth to the sauce. Marsala is also fortified with Brandy making it high in alcohol. It also has the ability to last much longer than regular wine and this can vary to a degree based on how long it was aged.
The longer the Marsala has been aged, the more alcohol it will contain, making it last longer (unopened). The sweeter the Marsala wine, the longer it will last opened.
Unopened Marsala will last months and even years when stored in a cool, dry place.
Opened Marsala (with a cork) will last 28-30 days in the kitchen refrigerator. Also, the sweeter styles of Marsala will the longer it will last open – either the max 30 days or several days past that.
Unopened Sherry will last 1-10 months when stored in 53–57˚F consistent temperatures, 60-70% humidity, complete darkness, and laying flat with a wine fridge or cellar. It is meant to be consumed right away.
Sherry is a wine used for cooking that is oxidized on purpose, in order to bring nutty, complex, flavors into it. It is produced in Southwest Spain and comes in fino (dry and light-bodied) and oloroso (dry but rich) styles.
Dry sherry can bring a great nuttiness to savory dishes, but be careful to get one that you would actually enjoy drinking. It’s important to note that this wine has been oxidized by the winemaker intentionally.
It’s not the same for you to oxidize a bottle of red wine by letting it go bad in your refrigerator in order to get that same nuttiness for your dish.
Storing Sherry Intentionally oxidized by a winemaker – almost all sherry falls into the category of a wine that can be stored one to two months after opening as long as it’s refrigerated and has a cork.
Unopened: Because of the oxidation process of fino sherry and the fact that it is light-bodied, it should not be left on the shelf long after bottling. In other words, it should be sold and used soon after bottling.
To learn how to properly store red wines to include the ones featured in this article, I strongly recommend you check out this helpful article on storing red wine.
Why Cook with a “Cooking Wine“?
The main thing wine brings in cooking is acidity. This helps break down the tougher cuts of meat when used in a marinade and/or keeps them tender in long-duration cooking methods such as braising.
Wine’s acidity also helps more delicate ingredients stay moist and tender in quick-cooking recipes such as steamed fish. As wine cooks, its flavor becomes concentrated, so either sweetness or savoriness comes out in the dish.
A good rule of thumb is – dry red and white wines are great for savory dishes and sweet wines are better for dessert recipes.
Storing Leftover Cooking Wine in the Refrigerator
Cooking with the same wine you are going to serve with the meal is a great way of getting the most out of it – as long as the recipe doesn’t call for the entire bottle.
For example, if cooking a tomato sauce with a bottle of Italian Chianti, sipping it does the same for the palate as it does for the dish – cuts nicely through the dish’s acidity.
After you have opened the bottle, store the leftover wine in the refrigerator for a maximum of four days. Otherwise, it will oxidize (go bad).
The negative aspects of oxidization will go into your dish as well if you try to cook with the wine after it has gone bad.
These undesirable flavors of mustiness will be imparted into the dish just as they would if you tried drinking it. This is a big mistake often made by those who think if a wine has gone bad a good way to use it up, is to cook with it.
Proper Storage for Fortified Wines Used for Cooking
In order to understand how to store the wines used for cooking, it’s important to understand how the fortified wines are made. Fortified wines are not distilled, even though many people confuse them with liquor.
As mentioned earlier, fortified means wine that has alcohol added. Once the alcohol is added, the yeast stops converting sugar to alcohol, and all of the remaining grape sugar is left in the wine as residual sugar.
If a sweeter fortified wine is desired, the neutral grape spirits (alcohol) are added within the first day of fermentation. If a dry fortified wine is desired, the full fermentation process would be allowed to run its course. Most fortified wines have no added flavoring agents.
The aging process is another factor that plays into the best length of time to store these wines. The actual aging time depends on fortified wine. The cheaper the wine, the less time it has spent aging in oak.
As mentioned above, Marsala and Madeira are high in alcohol. The degree to which they are high in alcohol is specifically correlated to the time spent aging.
Marsala and Madeira wines will age the best and can be stored for 2-6 years under proper conditions. Sherry, on the other hand, is meant to be consumed shortly after bottling. It is best drank or cooked under 1 year after purchase.
To Decant or Aerate
As a result of deep wood aging, most fortified wines will benefit from decanting or aerating. I recommend you aerate and decant your Marsala and Madeira wines. Sherries can benefit from decanting but it is not necessary.
Cooking Wine Storage Concepts
As we have learned, fortified wines commonly used for cooking vary by style and quality. For this reason, it is important to check into the recommendations for the particular type you are using.
However, there are some guidelines to use when deciding how to store your wine. Unopened bottles of Marsala and Madiera can be stored in a dark, cool location. They should be good for several months and even years stored under these conditions.
White and red wines used for cooking are treated the same in terms of days stored because they are fortified.
With very few exceptions, you can think of storing these fortified wines as falling somewhere between the guidelines between that of wine and liquor. (Remember, the higher the alcohol content, the longer the wine can be stored).
While it’s true that a bottle of scotch may sit on a shelf just fine for years, almost any distilled spirit in an opened bottle can lose its flavor and character after months, even if it doesn’t go bad.
For the sake of erring on the side of caution, the best rule of thumb to remember is that once opened it is best to drink fortified wines as soon as possible. If you want to store them, however, bottles can be stored upright in the refrigerator with a cork, for 28-30 days.
Serving Recommendations for Cooking Wines
Similar to other wines, serving temperatures vary with fortified wines for cooking. Oftentimes the wines do well to sit in a cool dark place or a chiller after opening them.
If you don’t have a wine chiller, the refrigerator is better than letting the wine sit out in a room that has a temperature above 70˚ F.
I would never recommend a kitchen refrigerator for long-term storage of any wine because it maintains far too cold of temperature and too low of humidity. But for short-term chilling prior to serving, it is ideal.
You Can Freeze Your Leftover Wine for Cooking
There are times when your recipe only calls for a cup of wine and you may have leftovers. Freezing wine is a great way to keep the wine fresh for cooking. The best way to freeze wine is to use an ice cube tray. You will always have some wine available to cook with!
A rubber tray such as those used to make large ice cubes for cocktails and whiskey is a great fit for this because each cube equals a half cup.
Simply fill the tray with the wine, cover with saran wrap, and transfer to the freezer. Make sure the wrap slightly touches the top of the wine so that ice crystals will be unable to form.
You may see tartrate crystals in the wine after freezing, but these are harmless. There is no need to thaw the cubes when you are ready to use them. Adding them to a hot pan will have them melting quickly.
The temperature at which wine will freeze is 22˚ F. The exact freezing point also depends on the wine alcohol content. The more alcohol a wine has, the lower its freezing point.
When wine freezes, it expands. Frozen wine can suffer from freezer burn just like any other food if left frozen for an extended amount of time (longer than several months).
I did my own test to see how long it would take wine to freeze. If you want to learn how fast wine freezes and how to save your wine once it is frozen solid, you really need to read this article I wrote.