One of the greatest revelations I’ve had as a cook came after I switched from working in kitchens to writing about booze. Only as an avid Martini drinker, rather than a classically trained professional chef, did I realize that vermouth is among the most underused and underappreciated ingredients in any cook’s arsenal.
The first serious restaurant I worked in focused on traditional French bistro dishes tweaked for modern palates by an old-school Bordeaux chef. Alcohol was no stranger in his recipes. We’d include port, red wine, brandy, and Madeira in the red onion reduction for our duck liver parfait. The braising liquor for the chef’s signature hare à la royale contained enough red wine to sink a ship. Even the pork meatball mix received a healthy glug of dry white before being rolled into marble-sized spheres, cooked, and served with snails, garlic butter, and a wild mushroom soufflé. Among all the sauces, stews, reductions, and pickling liquids, nary a splash of vermouth featured.
This was not because of the preference or oversight of my chef, I should point out. At the culinary college where I trained — England’s oldest and co-founded by Auguste Escoffier — we became versed in classical sauces that, by now, are more dated than the bottles of vermouth on most folks’ bar carts. We may have used a splash of Noilly Prat when learning how to master beurre blanc for fish dishes, and possibly called upon it when making the one and only Sole Veronique I have ever cooked, but vermouth was just as notable in its absence in the educational setting as I would later come to find in professional roles.
Or rather, its absence wasn’t notable at all. Because while restaurant bars work through cases of sweet and dry vermouth every month, the ingredient simply remains a foreign fixture in most commercial kitchens. This, I believe, is a missed opportunity, and vermouth — and its culinary potential — is something more home cooks should be aware of.
There’s a reason bartenders mix sweet vermouth in Manhattans and dry vermouth in Martinis, rather than red wine and white wine respectively. Beyond the 10 to 20 extra proof points they offer — which really makes little difference when stirred with 80-plus proof rye whiskey or gin — the fortified wines also contain an apothecary of infused botanicals. With herbs, flowers, seeds, and barks, these ingredients add extra layers of flavor and complexity to the fortified wines. Vermouth, in turn, can do exactly the same in cooking if you know how and when to use it.
Before the how, let’s first consider the added practical benefits. Most recipes that include wine call for a cup of red here or half a cup of white there, unless we’re talking about specific wine-based stews, such as coq au vin or boeuf Bourguignon. Chances are, if you have an open bottle of wine in your fridge for those occasions, it’s long since seen better days. And call me selfish, but if I’m opening a bottle for the evening, I’d rather not sacrifice a glass or two to my Le Creuset. I certainly don’t want to be drinking cooking wine — especially not when I can instead turn to the perfectly preserved bottle of vermouth in my fridge, which stands on call to service both Friday night Martinis and Saturday night sole filet.
The late Julia Child is among the few notable proponents of cooking with vermouth, though that seems to have as much to do with the quality of wine during her heyday as it does her love of the aromatized wine.
“White wines should be dry and full-bodied, such as a sauvignon, but because many of the whites are too acid [sic], I prefer to use a dry white French vermouth,” she notes in “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom.” “In addition to its strength and quality, it keeps nicely.”
(Incidentally, Child’s favorite cocktail was the Upside-Down Martini, a riff on the classic that sees vermouth assume the role of majority shareholder and gin make up the minority.)
Far be it from any of us to question the great chef, but while Child uses vermouth and white wine almost interchangeably in her recipes, I would suggest a more considered approach with a few guiding principles that work for both sweet and dry vermouth.
Some of the botanicals that lend vermouth its signature complexity (cinchona bark and wormwood) also infuse it with a challenging bitter streak. For this reason, I avoid using vermouth as a standalone braising liquid, as that flavor will only intensify over long cooking periods.
Instead, vermouth works best for deglazing pans, or lifting the sugars that have built up during the sautéing of vegetables, fish, or meat. Any liquid can perform this task, but using sweet or dry vermouth adds both the flavor of wine and its earthy, herbal notes. As a simple rule of thumb, use dry vermouth in place of white wine (for vegetables, fish, and white meats) and sweet vermouth instead of reds.
The British chef Simon Hopkinson employs this very technique in the recipe for his “Perfect Roast Chicken Dinner.” As the author of the wonderful cookbook “Roast Chicken and Other Stories,” we can wager that he knows a thing or two about preparing poultry.
While I avoid large volumes of vermouth for braising, by no means is it off the table (or out of the pan). When browning the vegetables and meat for boeuf Bourguignon, for example, use sweet vermouth for deglazing and also add half a cup on top of the red wine that acts as both the cooking liquid and base sauce for the dish. This is just the right amount for adding extra layers of flavor without running the risk of becoming overly bitter.
For those who like some crossover between cooking and cocktail projects, consider including dry vermouth in pickling liquids. Nowhere does this make more sense than homemade pickled onions for a Gibson, with that cocktail ultimately being a subtle (and delicious) twist on a Martini.
Though sweet vermouth can be enjoyed as a dessert in its own right, consider it for simple poached pears to round off a meal. Ideal for fall, brands like Vermouth Routin and Vermut Lustau arrive with rich vanilla, dried fruit, and caramelized nutty notes. Feel free to add more sugar or some extra baking spices during cooking, but with their already decadent profiles, this is an option rather than a necessity.
Clichéd though it may sound, it all boils down to experimentation. Just make sure you don’t leave yourself short for cocktail hour.
Published: March 21, 2021