Splash Marsala in the Glass, Not Just in the Zabaglione

A cooking wine that's good enough for the glass


There is an old chef’s adage that says you ought to cook with the wine you would drink with the dish. The idea is to illustrate the importance of cooking with a good wine whose flavors become concentrated during cooking. 

In reality, however, few of us would flavor a reduction sauce with a few splashes of an aged Château Ausone we’re planning to pair with some rare lamb. There are limits to politically correct cooking.

But what about the opposite? Are some wines that are traditionally used in the kitchen good enough to put in our glasses? Of course, there are also tales about really desperate housewives who regularly stone out on the cooking sherry, but that may be the exception.

One such “cooking wine” is the marsala that chefs this time of year are using to flavor desserts such as zabaglione and tiramisu. Marsala comes from western Sicily and is in the same broad general category of fortified wines as port, sherry, and madeira.

Today, marsala exists in many different grades and forms, even though its popularity is declining.  And in the 200-plus years since its invention, some Sicilians have been known to sip it like a digestif, but, otherwise, marsala’s place has been mainly restricted to the American kitchen. Is that just custom, or is there a reason?