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In an article - What's Cooking America; How To Cook With Wine - I found that wine has three main uses in the kitchen – as a marinade ingredient, as a cooking liquid, and as a flavoring in a finished dish. The alcohol in the wine evaporates while the food is cooking, and only the flavor remains. Boiling down wine concentrates the flavor, including acidity and sweetness.

The function of wine in cooking is to intensify, enhance, and accent the flavor and aroma of food – not to mask the flavor of what you are cooking but rather to fortify it.

My question is how does wine in cooking intensify, enhance, and accent the flavor and aroma of food? What is the chemistry behind?

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The other answers make good points, but OP in comments keeps asking whether alcohol helps ingredients "release their flavor" more. And yes, it does.

As to how it does so, one reason is simply because alcohol is a good solvent. Many things dissolve more easily in alcohol than in plain water. (Note that alcohols are often used in other household applications requiring solvents, stain removal, removal of other "gunk" when cleaning, etc. Household cleaning fluid can make use of various alcohols -- not just ethanol, as found in wine -- but the chemistry of how most alcohols work in creating better solubility is similar.)

Another comparison to think of is the use of alcohol in creating things like extracts. You'll get more flavor out of a vanilla bean by soaking it in high-proof alcohol compared to plain water. That's the same rationale behind the concept of a "vodka sauce" too.

Obviously wine doesn't have as high of an alcohol content, but the alcohol that is present can help "release flavors" through better solubility, part of the reason why wine is often used for deglazing pans too during cooking. (As mentioned in other answers, the specific flavor components found in wine are also tasty in and of themselves.)

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    @Borgh: this answer says cleaning alcohol is usually not ethanol. But en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubbing_alcohol says that "rubbing alcohol" often does contain some ethanol, with bitterants as you say to discourage drinking it. So yes, ethanol can be found in cleaning products. – Peter Cordes Jan 2 at 12:06
  • @Borgh: I'm not sure if this answer is right or not in the claim that most cleaning alcohol is not ethanol. – Peter Cordes Jan 2 at 12:30
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    Alcohol is no better solvent than water. The trick is, it is different solvent, working good for things water works poorly. It is due to alcohol being a much less polar solvent than water. And we often underestimate how good solvent water is, because it is everywhere and we are taking it or granted. – Mołot Jan 2 at 18:00
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    @Mołot: A very good point. Note that my answer doesn't claim alcohol is a better solvent, only that one will extract more flavors by using things like "high-proof alcohol" (e.g., vodka) compared to pure water. It's the mixture that's important, and different extracts will often use different proportions to maximize flavor extraction. It's also the rationale behind the common cooking strategy of sauteing in oil/fat, then deglazing with alcohol, then cooking in water. You have three different types of solvents there, which tends to maximize different flavor extractions. – Athanasius Jan 3 at 0:54
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    @KonradRudolph: By "significant" I did not mean in terms of alcohol consumption that might make one drunk or something, I meant "significant" relative to the amount of alcohol originally put into a dish (which might be <10% after cooking but could easily be >30% or more of the original alcohol content). Regardless, the amount of alcohol added to a dish can certainly be present long enough to help dissolve and enhance flavors, which was the point of the actual question here. As for the rest (which is irrelevant to the present question), you can debate that in chat with rumtscho. – Athanasius Jan 3 at 21:57
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As you are asking how wine enhances the flavor of foods, the first thing that came to mind for me is that wine contains glutamates, which are flavor enahncers.

Most people would be surprised to know how many foods contain naturally occurring glutamates. A table on this page lists many of the foods containing glutamates along with the amounts (mg per 100g).

This article found on Wine Spectator, explains that fermentation increases the glutamate or umami levels of foods.

While many foods have natural amounts of umami, their umami levels can increase when they undergo various transformations. The most elemental of these is the ripening of fruits and vegetables. For example, a ripe tomato has 10 times the glutamate of an unripe tomato. Drying, curing, aging and fermentation all increase the umami level. Dried shiitake mushrooms and dried sardines have considerably more umami than their fresh counterparts. Why does aged beef have more flavor than unaged beef? It has more umami. Fermentation gives soy sauce, Asian fish sauces and many other condiments such as hot sauces, Worcestershire sauce, Vegemite and Bovril lots of umami.

Fermentation also applies to beverages such as beer and wine. Hanni says big, rich red wines, especially those with high ripeness levels such as Australian Shirazes, and whites that have extended lees contact such as "big, fat, ripe, creamy Chardonnays and round, delicious Champagnes" tend to have the most umami.

What many of these methods have in common is that they break down foods into smaller units of flavor, which are easier to detect. These smaller units, says Shirley Corriher, a food scientist and the author of CookWise, The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking (William Morrow) "make taste receptors go 'ding ding' in our brain and say 'this is good.'"

So, when you cook with wine, you are adding natural flavor enhancers to your dish.

Edit in response to comment:

From a Science Direct article:

Many food ingredients, including monosodium glutamate (MSG), NaCl, and sweeteners have been termed ‘taste enhancers’ but their main effect is simply to add more molecules that generate additional taste or smell sensations. Tastants such as MSG, salt, and sweeteners don't actually boost other chemosensory properties but rather contribute additional meaty/savory, salty, or sweet properties respectively.

  • Does it make other ingredients release their flavor? – Andrew Jan 1 at 16:11
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    Andrew, please see my edit. Info on the science behind how it works is quite hard to find, but Im still on the hunt. I will add more if/when I find it. – Cindy Jan 1 at 17:02
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    This can hardly be the main factor. While wine does have some glutamates, any broth, a plain instant stock cube or soy sauce has much more. – IMil Jan 2 at 1:34
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    @Andrew With respect to glutamates, no. It does not make other ingredients release their flavor. Instead it is a flavor. Technically the flavor is called umami, part of the basic flavors of food: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. But unlike sweetness and saltiness, umami is a little hard to describe but easy to spot if it's not there. The best I can describe it is "meaty" or "earthy" like beef, mushroom, seaweed, soy sauce, parmesan etc. – slebetman Jan 2 at 8:12
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It's simply an ingredient, like any other ingredient you might add. It's flavor chemistry, and is perceived by us as taste and aroma. Alcohol doesn't entirely evaporate. It does help with the release of flavor and aroma molecules in other ingredients. Depending on the wine, and how it is treated in your cooking process, it potentially adds the flavor and aroma of the fermented grape, and it adds acidity to a dish. Also, particularly when using red wines, tannins add to the earthy and "dry" flavor and aroma perceptions.

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    when u are saying it helps with release of flavor in other ingredients do you mean it makes other ingredient release their flavor? – Andrew Jan 1 at 16:09
  • @Andrew - Alcohol is volitile. So, it aids in bringing certain aromas out of the dish and to our senses. Which molecules depends on whether or not they are hydrophyllic or hydrophobic, but, in a sense it does make some ingredients "release their flavor." – moscafj Jan 1 at 18:36

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