Kitchen Substitutions – Marsala Wine

If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, you’ve come across Marsala wine. Beef Marsala, Chicken Marsala, and many other classic Italian foods get their name simply from being cooked in this flavorful wine. But if you ran out of your vintage bottle of Marsala wine, don’t worry, most kitchens have enough secret ingredients on hand to simulate a Marsala wine flavor.

Whether it’s because you don’t have Marsala on hand, or because you prefer not to have a trace of alcohol in your food, Marsala-like flavors are easy to create, although the exact flavor cannot be faked. If you don’t mind alcohol and have a reasonably well-stocked liquor cabinet, just go for dry sherry, Madeira wine, or Port. Either of these will be close enough to Marsala that you get most of the flavor you want. Of the three, Madeira is the closest match and the best substitute. Sherry is the last option because it is salty, and also because one of your guests may recognize the taste of sherry and see where you “skimped”, if you consider this. You can hide the flavor of sherry a little better by mixing it with vermouth (half and half sherry and vermouth). This will also add a bit more complexity to the sherry flavor, sometimes flat.

If you don’t have Sherry, Madeira, or Porto, double-check your stock and check for a little brandy. You can mix brandy and grape juice to get a fake Marsala. Use 12 parts of grape juice to one part of brandy, or one-third of a cup of grape juice and a tablespoon of brandy. If you don’t have brandy, a Burgandy wine will work just as well, and you could probably omit the grape juice as well.

For those of you who want to skip the alcohol entirely, well, the most commonly suggested substitute is just chicken broth. Sprinkle on a little sugar (less than a teaspoon). If you have figs or prunes available, puree some mixed rosemary and sage and add to the recipe about a teaspoon at a time. With a little bit of the right pepper, you could end up with something really wonderful, although it won’t go down well with an Italian grandmother expecting Veal Marsala.

Consider buying a real bottle of Marsala wine next time. While you can fake the taste a bit, there really is no substitute. And once you’ve used it in a recipe and know what it can do for food, you’ll want to use it much more often; It won’t be like one of those exotic spices that collects dust on your herb shelf.

You will also have your bottle for a long time, because Marsala wine is fortified, which roughly means that it has a lot of alcohol in it. Keep your Marsala wine in a cool, dark place and make sure it is the real McCoy Marsala wine (preferably from a wine store), not the Marsala kitchen wine, which is just a marketing term for “lower quality.”

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