Cooking with wine is an intimidating prospect for many novices, but at bottom it's like any other ingredient. Wines add their distinctive flavors and -- in the case of red wines -- color to a variety of braised dishes and sauces. Each wine has its own character, so substituting Cabernet Sauvignon or other dry reds for a rich, sweet Marsala or other dessert wine doesn't usually work.
Marsala is one of Europe's great fortified wines, a group that also includes Port and Madeira. These wines have their alcohol content artificially raised by the addition of brandy or other distilled spirits, originally to help them survive during long sea voyages. Today the practice survives because the rich, potent wines are valued in their own right. Like sherry, Marsala is aged and blended in a series of vats, providing a consistent flavor from year to year. It's available in sweet and dry versions, classified by color as amber, golden or ruby.
For Savory Dishes
Many of the recipes calling for Marsala are savory dishes, such as the sauce used in Veal Marsala or Chicken Marsala. Here, a plain red wine such as a Cabernet Sauvignon would give the sauce a tannic, astringent flavor that would completely alter the nature of the dish. Other wines are more appropriate substitutes. If your recipe calls for a dry Marsala, substitute a dry sherry instead. They don't taste the same, but their character is similar enough for most purposes. If your recipe calls for sweet Marsala, you could use Madeira, a tawny port or sweet sherry. A mixture of sweet sherry and sweet vermouth is an even closer substitute.
Marsala is also used in a variety of desserts. Italians often use Marsala in tiramisu, and it's used to flavor a frothy whipped custard called zabaglione. Sweet Marsala is usually used for desserts. Where a ruby Marsala is specified, substitute ruby Port, Madeira or sweet red vermouth. If a golden or amber Marsala is called for, substitute sherry or a tawny port. Desserts are adaptable to a range of less-direct substitutions, so in a pinch any dessert wine will work. Feel free to experiment with late-harvest or ice wines, or Italian "vin santo."
Better-quality Marsala is often served as an aperitif before meals in Europe, and it also makes a fine accompaniment to nuts and cheese after a meal. Sherry is the closest equivalent to Marsala in its range of sweet, semi-sweet and dry styles, and their production methods and overall character are similar. If your appetizers or cheese plate come with a Marsala recommendation, the corresponding sherry is your best bet. Alternatively, a tawny or late-bottled vintage (LBV) port will complement most of the same foods. Lusciously sweet late-harvest or ice wines aren't as well suited to use as aperitifs, but they're good options to accompany a cheese plate.
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