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In the test kitchen, we use sherry in a variety of recipes. Does it matter what type and brand you cook with? In a word, yes.
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What You Need To Know
What is Sherry and How is It Made?
Sherry, a wine fortified with brandy, can be made dry or very sweet, with flavors that range from nutty and figlike to citrusy or melon-y. Originating in the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, authentic sherries get their flavor from aging in a series of partially filled casks that let the wine make contact with the air. This oxidation intensifies the flavors, which winemakers balance by adding younger wines and rotating the contents of the barrels from newer to older; this is called the solera process after the set of barrels. The solera system determines when the sherry gets bottled. As a final step, brandy is added. The youngest, least fortified sherry is fino. Older amontillado and palo cortado sherries are more oxidized and use more brandy, making them tawny, higher in alcohol, and earthier.
Spanish Sherry versus American Sherry
All dry Spanish sherries, including our winner, are made from dry palomino grapes; sweet ones use Pedro Ximénez grapes; and medium- or off-dry sherries blend the two. According to Spanish law, all sherry—sweet, dry, or medium—must come from the area around Jerez. In the United States, sherry can be made anywhere and with any grape. Some large-scale American producers speed flavor development by relying on the Tressler system, which involves baking the wine at a low temperature instead of aging it. Taylor Dry Sherry, made from Concord grapes, is baked at 140 degrees until it develops the aroma, flavor, and color that producers are after; usually this takes two to three weeks.
Tasting Various Sherries in a Sweet Application
Recipes more often call for dry sherry, since sweet sherry concentrates as it cooks down and the sweetness overpowers other tastes. We tried Taylor and one sherry cooking wine plus three widely available brands from Spain, including one medium-dry sherry, to determine which we liked best in Marlborough Apple Pie. The “robust,” “toffee”-like flavors of older, darker sherries provided pleasing “earthy” and “nutty” qualities in the pie. Lighter fino sherry, which some compared to fresh apples or green grapes, passed muster but did not rate as high. Salt-laden cooking sherry was our least favorite in our pie. It was a far cry from the “toasty,” “pecan”-like flavors of our winner, Lustau Palo Cortado Península Sherry, which is aged for 11 to 12 years in the solera system.
Tasting Various Sherries in a Savory Application
Since many savory recipes call for sherry, we sampled each brand again in creamed pearl onions. Tasters had a hard time finding sherry flavor in any sample, but this time, cooking sherry was far less objectionable. O...
Everything We Tested
Our favorite sherry offered “nice warmth” and a “walnut-y” taste in creamed onions. In pie, it was “very lively,” “very nutty,” and “velvety,” working with the apple and cream flavors so well that, as one taster said, “it makes the pie.”
This “smooth,” amber-colored sherry had a “powerful sweetness” and a “raisin-y,” “dried-fruit” flavor in pie. In creamed onions, the sweetness was very forward, but it didn’t ruin the dish.
The “mild sweetness” of this American sherry made it “subtle,” “more complex,” and “nutty” in pie, but it was “lacking an alcohol kick.” In creamed onions, its “muted” taste had “a faint hint of nuttiness.”
Recommended with reservations
This pale, “very light and dry” fino sherry was “very lemony and acidic” and “bright” in pie, with less depth than older samples. In creamed onions, it was again “very light and bright-tasting,” with “nothing off” about its flavor, but it “doesn’t really register.”
“Where’s the sherry?” some tasters asked when sampling this cooking sherry in pie. “Not very complex,” others wrote. “Overall, the least flavorful.” In creamed onions, its “slightly saline” taste did better, though it was “hard to pick up on the sherry” itself.
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