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Is Cabernet Sauvignon a Substitute for Marsala?

by Sandy Hemphill, studioD

Cabernet sauvignon, a still wine made from red grapes, is often used in cooking. Some classic dishes -- beef bourguignon and coq au vin, for example -- get their distinctive flavor personality from cabernet sauvignon. Marsala, a fortified wine made from white grapes, is the ingredient behind other classics, such as veal and chicken Marsala. If you find you're out of Marsala, cabernet sauvignon often makes a suitable substitute.

Three Kinds of Wine

Wine is produced in three ways, each resulting in a different kind of wine -- sparkling, still and fortified. Sparkling wines are the bubbly stuff such as Champagne, spumante and cava. Still wines, such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir, have no bubbles and are the most popular. Fortified wines, such as Marsala and port, are still wines that have had brandy or another distilled spirit added to it; the addition of the distilled spirit stabilizes the wine and gives it a longer shelf life.

Flavor Differences

Despite the taste differences between Marsala and cabernet sauvignon, in a pinch, the cab will add a comparable wine-flavored dimension to your dishes. Marsala, made from white grapes grown in the Italian region of the same name, can hold its own with a bold cabernet, thanks to the addition of brandy. Marsala comes in three styles -- secco, which is dry; semisecco, or medium dry and sweet dolce. Use dolce Marsala in dessert dishes and the other two for savory dishes. Black currant is the predominant flavor characteristic of cabernet sauvignon, bringing a fruity fresh flavor to any dish. Astringency is also noticeable in cabernet although this flavor component mellows as the wine ages.

Alcohol Content

All still wines, including cabernet sauvignon, are about 11 to 13 percent alcohol. The exact percentage will vary a bit among varietals, vintners and vintages but not much. Once the alcohol content reaches this percentage, the yeast in the wine dies and fermentation, which generates alcohol production, stops. When brandy is added to Marsala wine, alcohol content increases. Fortified wines, including Marsala, usually range between 15 and 22 percent alcohol. Because most of the alcohol cooks off when added to dishes, the differences in alcohol content are not an issue. Some of the alcohol may linger in the dish, but it won't be a significant amount.

Tips for Cooking Success

Just like Marsala, cabernet sauvignon can be used to deglaze a pan. When substituting cabernet for Marsala in a dish that requires a long cooking time, add cabernet sauvignon early so the fruity flavor and astringency will mellow while cooking even if the recipe calls for adding Marsala toward the end of the cook time. Use cabernet sauvignon only when its dark color will not discolor the other ingredients in the recipe. Use any remaining cabernet sauvignon within a day or two of opening the bottle.

About the Author

Sandy Hemphill graduated with honors from Western Culinary Institute, Portland, Oregon, in 1997. She's published a cookbook ("Texas to the Bone") and has a series of cookbooks in development. She writes a web page devoted to cocktails. After seven years of copywriting, she founded iRoar.org, for internet marketing.

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