Questions for cooks: Non-alcoholic substitutions for wine in recipes

Reader Lisa submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

My question in short form: What can I substitute for wine in recipes?

The longer details: My husband and I are not big drinkers. We don’t have any objections to alcohol, but we probably only have a drink two or three times a year. So we never have wine in the house. I don’t want to buy a bottle for the half cup that a saute calls for. Is there something I can use when a recipe calls for wine that will taste good, can be found at the grocery store, isn’t too expensive, and won’t end up having most of it thrown away?

There are a number of liquids you can substitute for wine in recipes. The key is to determine why a recipe calls for wine, which will then help you to figure out the best substitution.

And now you’re probably wondering: “How do you know why a recipe calls for wine?” Well, it’s not always the case, but you can often determine the reason based on when in the recipe you add the wine. If you use the wine early in the recipe, it’s often to influence the cooking method of the food. If you use the wine late in the recipe, it’s to add flavor.

If the recipe calls for wine to influence the cooking method, you’ll want to use an acidic liquid similar to wine. I’ve had good luck using white wine vinegar and plain white vinegar for white wine, and balsamic vinegar for red wine. These vinegars do influence flavors a little, so they won’t always work. Other liquid substitutions I’ve tried and had work: carbonated water with a couple teaspoons of lemon juice, tomato juice (like V8), and vegetable stock with a couple teaspoons of lemon juice or white vinegar.

If the recipe calls for wine for the purpose of flavor enhancement, unsweetened grape juice is usually a perfect replacement. Use white grape juice for white wine and red grape juice for red wine. Sometimes it’s difficult to find unsweetened juices, so if you can’t find unsweetened juice look for a brand that has sugar closest to the end of the listed ingredients instead of toward the beginning. Don’t use sparkling grape juices because the sugar content is too high — however, sparkling grape juice is good for recipes that call for champagne or vermouth (though not all).

When making a substitution like this, be sure to have back-up dinner options on hand. It might take you two or three times to find the perfect substitution for your recipe. You’ll be able to find a substitution, just not always on the first attempt. Keep a good sense of humor and think of it like an adventure, and you should be fine.

Thank you, Lisa, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Good luck!

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27 comments posted

  1. Posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown - 02/11/2011

    I love to cook with wine but we don’t ever drink enough.

    You can freeze it into ice cubes & pop one in a soup or stew you’re making.

  2. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/11/2011

    @Jacki — A great suggestion. After the cubes freeze, we pop them out of the tray and put them in a zip-top bag. Then the tray can be used to freeze other things.

  3. Posted by modestgrrl - 02/11/2011

    Thanks for posting this! As you know, no cooking method completely gets rid of the alcohol content, and my religion forbids the consumption of alcohol. So this will help me a lot in cooking. :)

  4. Posted by Ryan - 02/11/2011

    A really easy solution, if you can drink _some_ alcohol, but just don’t want it around, is to keep dry vermouth around the house.

    I picked this up from Cook’s Illustrated. It doesn’t really go bad (at least, I don’t think it does, and if it does, it takes forever) and works well in many many recipes that call for wine. This is what my partner and I do, since we never drink wine at home.

  5. Posted by Martha - 02/11/2011

    I am not really a wine drinker, so I don’t keep much around the house either. One of the things I have done is buy the little four packs of wine (Sutter Home is one brand that does the small bottles). I open one up when I need it, and since it doesn’t contain much, not a lot goes to waste. It’s also helpful with menu planning if you plan to make two meals in the same week or so that both require wine – it will get used up quickly!

  6. Posted by Jess - 02/11/2011

    You can use vermouth, the bottle will keep for a long time in the pantry.

  7. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/11/2011

    @Ryan and @Jess — Vermouth is a fortified alcohol, so using it instead of wine greatly increases the alcohol content and flavor of what you’re cooking. Food scientist Harold McGee advises against using it as a substitution:


  8. Posted by Harmony - 02/11/2011

    Vermouth totally goes bad. It should be refrigerated and used within a few months of opening, or it tastes terrible.

    I second Martha’s comment about the little bottles of wine! They are just a serving or two, and are great to stash in your cupboard for when you need a little wine for a recipe.

  9. Posted by infmom - 02/11/2011

    I don’t drink alcohol, and my husband only has the occasional beer. For cooking, I use sherry or vermouth. I have not had any problems doing that.

  10. Posted by infmom - 02/11/2011

    Adding on… well, other than the looks I get at the grocery store when I ask a clerk “Where’s the cheap vermouth?” :)

  11. Posted by Charlotte - 02/12/2011

    Is there a Trader Joe’s near you? You can’t go wrong with using some “Two Buck Chuck”. It’s probably cheaper than the other options, even if you throw most of the bottle away.

  12. Posted by Ginger - 02/12/2011

    When I open a bottle of wine to cook with I freeze the leftovers for later use. I’ve found freezing in 1/2 cups work great. Be sure the use a container that allows expansion when freezing or it will make a mess in the freezer.

  13. Posted by julie k - 02/13/2011

    I’m quite happy with vermouth as well. It cost $3 for the brand cook’s illustrated recommended and I wrote the date on the bottle so I’m aware of its age. I just use a little less than a recipe calls for and add it only when it will have plenty of cooking time.

    I also don’t drink and this has been helpful when a recipe calls for white wine. When it calls for red i use two buck chuck and give the wine to my neighbor who has a glass of red every day.

  14. Posted by Anne - 02/13/2011

    I’m a little concerned at the way the myth is being propagated nowadays that food cooked with alcohol still contains significant amounts of alcohol at the end of the cooking process. Everybody has known for centuries that the amount remaining is negligible to zero and that it’s safe for anybody to eat, but apparently we in the 21st century know better, as usual. It seems like our over-cautious health-and-safety culture is now claiming a new victim. (By the way, I understand that this question is more about storing wine that you wouldn’t otherwise drink, so the ice cube solution is fab!). Another suggestion for your reader Lisa: why not just have a small drink every day? A glass of red wine a day is good for you, and you can use the remainder of your bottle in your cooking.

  15. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/13/2011

    @Anne — Not all alcohol cooks off at temperatures above 170º. This is science. So, yes, scientists in modern times DO know more than their predecessors on this specific subject:

  16. Posted by Julie - 02/14/2011

    Depending on the recipe, I’ve found that you can sometimes use beef broth (or other broths) instead of red wine. Yes, it’s definitely not the same flavor, but sometimes it’s just as good.

  17. Posted by DairyStateMom - 02/14/2011

    Speaking as someone who drank way too seriously for way too long and quit many years ago… I still keep wine in the house just to cook with. (Well, okay, my husband likes red wine, which is helpful, but we keep white wine around as well.) I’ve tried various deglazing substitutes (long-cooking liquids are another story) and always come back to wine for certain dishes. There’s just no substitute for the richness, tang, and mouth feel that wine gives. And for heaven’s sake, buy decent stuff in the first place and offer the rest of the bottle to a neighbor if you can’t use it up. You only have to use a few ounces in a dish for four people — less than a 4-ounce glass.

    Yes, of course, there are people who simply can’t at all, and we need to respect that. In which case….

    Erin, I love your blog and you’re very, very smart about an awful lot, but grape juice in cooking sounds like a recipe for chicken with grape jelly … a long way from the chicken with mushrooms, tarragon, and white wine, the very first saute I ever learned to cook, many years ago. Apple juice (unsweetened, 100% juice) has a cleaner flavor (and you can use the rest of the juice in the bottle in all kinds of baked goods, too). Apple juice with pork is also seriously yummy (and kids especially like it, at least in my experience), especially if you let it cook down a little bit. For beef, maybe grape juice works better than I’m envisioning; I leave that experiment to others.

    As for storing the rest of the bottle … erm, you can make double the dish and freeze the food to eat in a few weeks, which is probably going to give you better results than freezing wine cubes. Or as a couple of commenters suggest, enlist a neighbor to supply with a friendly daily glass.

    I don’t mean to be doctrinaire here; in one’s own kitchen, one should use what one likes. But please don’t deprive yourself of the taste of good wine in cooking because of mechanical details.

  18. Posted by Kai - 02/14/2011

    With the vinegars, why not red wine vinegar? I’ve used it in place of red wine in a number of marinades to great success.

    And as for the suggestion to just start drinking the wine, while it might not be harmful, suggesting someone take up drinking is a little too far. Any study so far ascribing benefits to the tannins in red wine has found it only beneficial for men.
    And if one doesn’t care for wine, or doesn’t want to drink alcohol, it’s an entirely reasonable position, and pretty dumb to treat a question about cooking with just a ‘remove the problem by drinking it!’ flip.

  19. Posted by Mackenzie - 02/14/2011

    I just use vegetable broth. It does a fine job of adding flavour and taking up more liquid without adding that disgusting alcohol taste.

  20. Posted by Boots - 02/14/2011

    I use rice wine vinegar for white wine, and balsamic vinegar for red wine (diluted with some water because balsamic is a strongly flavored vinegar).

    Keep both vinegars in the fridge and they stay good for a long time.

  21. Posted by Claire Steel - 02/15/2011

    I buy the small bottles of wine (187ml=just over 6oz) that have screw tops. In Sainsbury’s (UK Supermarket) they are often on offer (2 for £3) and because they are small they rarely go off before I have used them. In fact because they are there I am more likely to throw a little in to what I am making.

  22. Posted by Anne - 02/15/2011

    @Erin – Are you referring to the 1992 study on alcohol content of food after cooking? I think some later studies have contradicted it. But even if the 1992 study is correct, aren’t people still making a mountain out of a molehill regarding this issue? For example, when I make beef carbonade I use beer containing about 5% alcohol and simmer the stew for around three hours. According to the 1992 study less than 4% of that original tiny amount of alcohol would remain, so surely that wouldn’t be a problem for anybody? I just think we should retain a sense of perspective.

    @Kai – Are you referring to me regarding the suggestion to have a small drink of wine every day? The reason I suggested that was because I often find that the best solution to a problem is precisely the one that I’ve ruled out and haven’t considered. There’s a huge difference between being an alcoholic and having a small glass of wine every day. I think the French, for example, would find the American fearful/puritanical attitude towards alcohol bizarre.

    And by the way, I think Claire Steel’s suggestion is another great one: I’ve seen those 6oz bottles in lots of supermarkets in the UK and in Europe, so I imagine they have them in America, too. Another suggestion: don’t worry about the wine going off slightly. I find that slightly vinegary wine actually adds to the flavour of many dishes.

  23. Posted by Erin Doland - 02/15/2011

    @Anne — The link I provided is to a 2006 study. Cooking an item longer does decrease the alcohol content (so three hours would greatly reduce the alcohol content), but there is still alcohol present. For anyone who doesn’t consume alcohol for health or religious purposes, cooking with alcohol is still cooking with alcohol.

  24. Posted by Natalie - 02/17/2011

    I’ve found that cranberry juice works as a substitute.

  25. Posted by Emily - 02/21/2011

    Whisky. I know this sounds over-the-top, but we live in Scotland, and relatives are always giving my husband whisky at special occasions. I’ve found that it can be substituted in almost anything that calls for wine, but you just have to use a little less to compensate for the strength. It’s lovely in venison stew! Over the course of the year we tend to just about use up one Christmas bottle, with a wee dram left over for New Year.

  26. Posted by Mo - 02/21/2011

    The simplest answer is that North American cooking wines contain preservatives to help them keep longer in the cupboard. Unless you avoid all preservatives, a good solution.

    Freezing wine sounds great, too!

    But I must stress (as a cookbook author) *DO NOT* straight-up substitute a half cup of vinegar for wine in any recipe! A tablespoon would be a subtler matter, but you must consider the flavours if wine was to be added in significant proportion to other ingredients.

    Think with your palate: water the vinegar down to roughly the acidity-level of wine. If using grape juice in a savoury recipe, mix in a little water and vinegar to balance out the sweetness. Jot down your concoction so that you can recreate it next time, if all goes well. Good luck!

  27. Posted by Carson - 02/28/2011

    I am not a wine-drinker (I’m not opposed to it; I just like beer better), so like the asker, I’m loath to buy a whole bottle of wine just for a cup’s worth. My solution? I buy boxed wine—usually Franzia or Peter Vella. Since oxygen can’t get through the tap, the wine lasts for pretty much ever.

    I know Julia Child (amongst others) has said something on the order of “Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink,” but unless the wine is the major flavor of your dish, no one will notice that you used boxed wine.

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