Marsala wine gives a nice flavor, aroma, and texture to various dishes be it savory or sweet. However, it can be expensive and not everyone may have access to it. Also, you may want to get its flavor into a dish minus the alcohol content.
So, what do you do? The good news is that there are several things that you can substitute for Marsala wine. If you want to learn more about these alternatives and how to use them in your cooking, continue reading below!
What is Marsala?
Marsala wine is a type of fortified wine exclusively made in the city of Marsala in Sicily, Italy. It is popularly used as a cooking ingredient to impart rich, nutty flavors to sauces and many other Italian dishes.
Similar to wines like Port, Sherry, and Madeira, Marsala contains an alcohol content of anywhere between 17% to 20%, which is somehow high. There are also different types of Marsala wine classified according to age and sweetness. Low age grades are sweeter and have less alcohol content.
Fine Marsala has a 17% alcohol content and is less than a year old; Superiore is aged for more than two years and has 18% alcohol; while Vergine Soleras which is aged for five years or more has 18% to 20% alcohol.
Marsala can also come in different flavors, the most common of which are tamarind, stewed apricot, brown sugar, and vanilla. As a drink, it is best served at a slightly cool temperature of around 55 °F or 12.8 °C. High-end Marsala has a wider range of flavors including licorice, tobacco, honey, walnut, apple, morello cherry, or dried fruits.
Marsala pairs well with food like chocolate, Brussel sprouts, and asparagus which are otherwise considered hard to match.
How Marsala Gets its Unique Taste
Marsala wine gets its unique and special taste due to two things:
- It is made only with the use of indigenous Sicilian grapes and through a complex winemaking process.
- The process of making Marsala Wine is quite difficult. It is fortified with brandy or a neutral grape spirit often made using regional grapes. High-end and more expensive Marsala wines even use a special aging system called Soleras.
Dry VS Sweet Marsala Wine
Marsala wine can either be sweet or dry. Both types are made using the same method but as you may have guessed, sweet marsala simply contains a higher sugar content than dry marsala. Sweet marsala also has a more viscous consistency.
Because of this difference in flavor, dry marsala and sweet marsala are applied differently in cooking.
It is best used in rich desserts such as shortcake, zabaglione, and tiramisu or thick, sweet sauces. It is common to use sweet Marsala in main dishes with pork loin or chicken. It can also be enjoyed as an after-dinner drink.
It is best added to savory dishes or enjoyed as an apéritif. It adds caramelization and a deep nutty flavor to veal, beef tenderloin, turkey, and mushrooms. A common savory Marsala sauce is cooked by reducing the wine to an almost syrupy consistency along with shallots or onions and then adding some herbs and mushrooms.
Chicken Marsala, one of the most popular dishes that use the wine, use chicken that is braised in a mixture of olive oil, butter, mushrooms, spices, and Marsala wine. Dry Marsala can also be used in some risotto recipes.
When cooking, Dry Marsala can be used as an alternative for Sweet Marsala but Sweet Marsala generally cannot be a substitute for Dry Marsala. Therefore, it is more advisable to get Dry Marsala and keep it on hand for versatility in cooking a wider range of recipes.
Cooking with Marsala
Marsala is frequently used in cooking Italian dishes in the United States. Entry-level quality Marsala wines are usually the best for cooking since they are cheaper and will last for quite some time.
Superiore or Fine Marsala in either Amber (Ambra) or Gold (Oro) styles are often used. Though only rarely, some recipes call for Ruby (Rubino) style Marsala.
The Best Substitute for Marsala Wine
Since Marsala wine is made only in a specific region, it can be expensive and hard to find. But don’t worry! Even if you have no Marsala on hand, there are several substitutes that you can try:
“Fortified” is a term used to describe wines to which a distilled spirit like brandy is added. Marsala is a fortified wine. Therefore, other fortified wines like Sherry, Port, or Madeira can be used as Marsala substitutes since they are alike in taste.
Madeira is arguably the best substitute for Marsala wine because it has the most similar flavor profile, though not exactly the same. Note that some types of Port can be a good yet expensive substitute.
Non-Fortified wines like white wine can be used instead of Marsala. You can also add some brandy to help you achieve a flavor closer to Marsala wine, just mix 1 teaspoon of brandy for every ¼ cup of dry white wine. Use sweet white wine for baking sweets and pastries or use dry white wine for cooking savory dishes. Pinot Noir is also a good Marsala substitute.
To mimic the flavor of Marsala or Madeira, try simmering two parts of white wine with 1 part brandy, a touch of salt, and some brown sugar.
Marsala has a much more complex flavor profile than sherry but for cooking, sherry will do as a good alternative as long as Marsala is not the star of the dish or the main ingredient. If you do decide to use sherry as a Marsala substitute, make sure not to use cooking sherry but actual sherry.
This is because cooking sherry has a high sodium content and contains many additives that can drastically affect the flavor of your dish. If adding just Sherry makes you find that the flavor isn’t quite right, try mixing in an equal part of sweet Vermouth.
White grape juice is a cheap and easy non-alcoholic Marsala substitute but it imparts less flavor. To amp it up a little, stir in a teaspoon of brandy for every ¼ cup of white grape juice.
To match the flavor of Marsala more closely, add 2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar and a tablespoon of vanilla extract with a ¼ cup of white grape juice. This is probably the wisest choice when making a delicate recipe that you want to keep alcohol-free.
For savory recipes like chicken marsala, you can use vegetable stock or chicken stock instead of the Italian cooking wine. This makes the dish tasty without adding any alcohol.
There are several reasons why you may need a substitute for Marsala wine in your cooking: because it is expensive because you do not have access to it, or because you want to make a non-alcoholic dish. Whatever your reason is, there are several alternatives to Marsala.
Depending on how you will use it and what dish you are cooking, the best Marsala substitutes can range from other fortified and non-fortified wines, white grape juice, or chicken and vegetable stock.