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

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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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