Food, like the people who eat it, can be stimulated by wine or spirits. And, as with people, it can also be spoiled. The quality in a white or red wine, vermouth, Madeira, or brandy that heightens the character of cooking is not the alcohol content, which is usually evaporated, but the flavor. Therefore any wine or spirit used in cooking must be a good one. If it is excessively fruity, sour, or unsavory in any way, these tastes will only be emphasized by the cooking, which ordinarily reduces volume and concentrates flavor. If you have not a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.
White wine for cooking should be strong and dry, but never sour or fruity. A most satisfactory choice is white Mâcon, made from the Pinot Blanc or the Chardonnay grape. It has all the right qualities and, in France, is not expensive. As the right white wine is not as reasonable to acquire in America, we have found that a good, dry, white vermouth is an excellent substitute, and much better than the wrong kind of white wine.
A good, young, full-bodied red wine is the type you should use for cooking. In France you would pick a Mâcon, one of the lesser Burgundies, one of the more full-bodied regional Bordeaux such as St.-Émilion, or a good local wine having these qualities.
Fortified wines, spirits, and liqueurs are used principally for final flavorings. As they must be of excellent quality they are always expensive; but usually only a small quantity is called for, so your supply should last quite awhile. Here, particularly, if you do not want to spend the money for a good bottle, omit the ingredient or pick another recipe.
Rum and Liqueurs are called for in desserts. Dark Jamaican rum is the best type to use here, to get a full rum flavor. Among liqueurs, orange is most frequently specified; good imported brands as touchstones for flavor are Cointreau, Grand Marnier, and curaçao.
Madeira and Port are often the final flavor-fillip for sauces, as in a brown Madeira sauce for ham, or chicken in port wine. These wines should be the genuine imported article of a medium-dry type, but can be the more moderately priced examples from a good firm.
Sherry and Marsala are rare in French cooking. If used in place of port or Madeira they tend to give an un-French flavor to most French recipes.
Brandy is the most ubiquitous spirit in French cooking from desserts to sauces, consommés, aspics, and flambées. Because there are dreadful concoctions bottled under the label of brandy, we have specified cognac whenever brandy is required in a recipe, as a reminder that you use a good brand. You do not have to buy three-star or V.S.O.P, but whatever you use should compare favorably in taste with a good cognac.