Marsala Wine: Dry vs. Sweet

Marsala is a fortified wine—a wine that contains a distilled spirit, usually brandy—originating in Sicily. Similar in general flavor profile to Madeira, the wine is often used for cooking (Chicken Marsala, anyone?), but it can also be enjoyed as a sipper.

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Often, a recipe will call specifically for either sweet Marsala or dry Marsala. So what's the difference? Used in the context of a savory recipe, where a Marsala is used to create pan sauce for example, the flavor distinction between sweet and dry will be so slight that substituting one for the other is really no big deal.

Sweet and dry Marsalas are both made by the same method, but as you may imagine, sweet wine simply has a higher sugar content. Given its sweeter flavor and more viscous consistency, sweet marsala is best used in desserts, like tiramisu and zabaglione, or as an after dinner drink. Dry Marsala is better suited for drinking as an apéritif or for savory recipes.

Best Sherry Substitutes in Cooking

Occasionally a recipe will call for sherry, a fortified wine, and even though the amount needed is typically small, sherry imparts a unique taste and acidic quality that can really enhance the flavor of whatever dish you're preparing. But not everyone has sherry stocked in their liquor cabinet, and we may not want to purchase a whole bottle for just one tablespoon. Fortunately, there are a few substitutes for sherry, both the sweet and dry varieties.

Marsala Wine

Marsala is the west section of Sicily, the island near the foot end of Italy. In 1798 the Sicilians managed to substitute their own wines in place of the standard rum in an English naval shipment. In those seafaring days, something had to be done to wine to allow it to last the long ocean journeys. Brandy was added to allow the wine to last longer and to be more resistant to temperature changes. These brandy-dosed wines were called "fortified wines".

Once the British had a taste of Marsala, demand grew quickly. In the United States during Prohibition, things became even more interesting. The typical Marsala bottles made the wine look like medicine. People found that getting Marsala was less risky than other types of wine. While not as popular now for straight drinking, Marsala is still used quite frequently as a cooking wine in Italian dishes.

White skin/berry grapes

Dark red skin/berry grapes

Marsala is made in the "solera" tradition - a melding of years. First, a keg is filled with wine from the current vintage of grapes. Subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom (oldest) keg, it is refreshed with liquid from the next keg up, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle you get has (potentially) some liquid from the very first vintage.

Types of Marsala

  • Fine: 17° alcohol, aged >1 yr
  • Superiore: 18° alcohol, aged >2 years
  • Superiore Riserva: 18° alcohol, aged 4 years
  • Vergine Soleras: 18° alcohol, aged 5 years

Marsala was traditionally served between the first and second courses. It is now also served, chilled, with Parmesan (stravecchio), Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and other spicy cheeses. It is served out of a small, fairly thin glass, like a port is.

Marsala Substitutions

I regularly get email from casual wine drinkers who come across a recipe for chicken marsala or veal marsala and want to know what other alcohol they can substitute instead. I love both of these dishes. Here's the issue. Imagine you had a recipe for making orange juice and you wanted to substitute lemons instead. They're both citrus! However they taste very different. So you're no longer making orange juice, you're making lemon juice now.

The same thing is true for dishes with marsala. It has a very specific taste. Sure, you could make chicken with chardonnay, or chicken with cabernet, and they might be tasty. But they are no longer chicken marsala. The flavor will be completely different. So at that point you could call it "chicken with wine" and be happy. If you want chicken marsala, then you need to find marsala, so that it tastes like marsala.

Pretty much any regular wine shop will have marsala bottles on their shelves, along with the port and sherry. Again marsala doesn't taste like port and sherry :) But that's the type of wine it is. So I highly recommend that you take a run to your local wine shop, grab a bottle of marsala, and enjoy! It lasts a long time because it's fortified. Chicken and veal marsala are really yummy, so you'll want to make it several times. Marsala is one of those staples of cooking, like having lemon juice in your fridge.

If you are striving to avoid alcohol, I'm afraid there is not a non-alcoholic marsala flavoring. Note that any recipe calling for "Marsala" means this wine. Marsala is the name for this wine.

Sweet vs Dry Marsala

I get emails from cooks asking which they should use - sweet or dry marsala - in a recipe. It's like saying you have a recipe which says to use cheddar cheese and you have mild cheddar and sharp cheddar and medium cheddar, and which should you use. You can use any of them. They are all cheddar, they will all provide a cheddar flavor. If you like mild cheddar better, you might go with that. But if you're not a cheese fanatic you might not even really notice the subtle differences between for example mild and medium cheddar flavors when they are in a dish.

So it definitely is to taste :). Do you like sweetish chicken dishes? Do you like non-sweetish chicken dishes? Are you even going to notice the difference which is that kind of subtle variation? Who knows, you might not even be able to taste any difference since both are going to taste "like marsala". Undoubtedly you're not going to make chicken or veal marsala only once in your life if you like it, you'll make it every few weeks. So make it one time with the sweet and one time with the dry, and see if you can even notice any difference. Or, I suppose, have someone else add in the marsala and not tell you which they used and see if you can guess :) It might be you can't even tell which is being used, in which case it's not worth worrying about. Use whichever one you have more of.

Storing Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine - this means they add hard alcohol to it. This also means that, just like you can keep opened (sealed) bottles of vodka and rum on your shelves, you can also keep an opened bottle of marsala around. Yes, the flavor will gently deteriorate over time, but it won't go from wonderful tasting to awful tasting in three days. You probably won't even notice the flavor difference after a month or two. Still, I'd suggest drinking it all within three to four months (or cooking dishes with it). When you cook with a flavor, you get a really concentrated version of that flavor. So you want really tasty, yummy marsala flavors - not sort of stale, stagnant marsala flavors. I am very much a fan of eating food that you really enjoy, and savoring the flavors!

Marsala is fortified, so you do not have to store it in a fridge or take any special measures. Just keep it in a cool, dark area like any other oil or wine. Marsala will not "go bad" - it won't turn dangerous to drink - but its flavors will fade over time.

Brandy is a key part of Marsala. Make sure you read up on Brandy's Secrets to learn more about brandy and its role in marsala!

Let me know if you have any other questions about marsala!

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.

Non-Alcoholic Marsala Wine Substitutes for Cooking

11. White Grape Juice

Simple plain white grape juice also works as a Marsala Wine substitute. However, the best non-alcoholic Masala wine substitute is a combination of ¼ cup white grape juice, 2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.

12. Prunes, Figs, or Plums with Balsamic Vinegar

Fruits such as prunes, figs, or plums can be used and cooked down, stew style, to make a Masala substitute. Simmer the fruits over low heat and strain them through a fine-mesh sieve. After you strain the fruit, add a bit of Balsamic vinegar, and your substitute is ready to use!

13. Red Grape Juice or Cranberry Juice

For cakes and many baked goods, you can even work with red grape juice or cranberry juice. The flavor is not exact, but it is a fair approximation and completely alcohol-free.

14. Figs and Rosemary with Sage

A puree can be made using figs, rosemary, and sage. This puree can be used as-is, or slightly watered down to use as your Marsala substitution.

When using this puree, start with one teaspoon at a time. Taste, and increase the amount of puree as needed.

15. Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar can work as a Marsala Wine substitute in a pinch. However, it would not be my first choice especially if needing a sweet Marsala substitute.

When using balsamic vinegar, I would suggest making a reduction with the vinegar first. Add small amounts of sugar after reducing, adjusting to your own taste gradually.

16. Chicken or Vegetable Stock

Chicken stock or vegetable broth can be used as a non-alcoholic Marsala substitute for savory dishes. Recipes, especially meat dishes, that will be simmered or cooked for longer periods of time will work best with this Marsala wine substitute.

Here are the rice wine substitutes you should always have in your kitchen:

#1. Dry Sherry

This choice works like a charm, particularly if you can buy pale dry sherry. The flavor is very similar to rice wine, as it is made from glutinous rice, wheat yeast, and water. This type of dry sherry can be used because it is subtle in taste and not very sweet.

Be careful though as there are many types of sherry out there that aren’t appropriate in place of rice wine. Make sure you pick pale dry sherry as it is the only one that will have the same color and taste.

#2. Japanese Sake

This well-known dry rice wine from Japan is a good option when you can’t use rice wine. You can always find sake in Japenese restaurants, accompanying good sushi or ramen, but this wine can also come in handy when you’re cooking.

The flavor is similar, but there are many types like dry, light, dark. So make sure you taste your favorite first before picking one.

#3. Gin

This choice may surprise you, but using gin can be a good alternative for substituting rice wine. The reason why gin works well is that it has a very similar flavor to white rice wine, even more so than sherry in some cases. Gin can be bought in any liquor store, and if you aren’t trying to make cocktails, the brand doesn’t matter.

Because gin has a higher alcohol content, it is more potent and can alter the final flavor. Try adding ⅓ of the amount originally posted in your recipe, and taste, if you feel like it needs more, you can add little by little.

#4. White Wine

You may be thinking why white wine is so far down the list, and the truth is that because there are many kinds of white wine and the flavor can vary immensely. We recommend that you pick a dry white wine if possible, as it is the one that will resemble rice wine the most.

White wine is common in Italian and Mediterranean cooking, but not so in Asian cuisine, that’s why you should pick a dry choice and try it, as it can be too sweet and ruin the flavor.

#5. White Grape Juice

While this is a non-alcoholic choice, it is still a good option if you’re in a pinch or trying to keep the flavor intact when there is no wine nearby. The acid in the grape juice will tenderize the meat, which makes it a great addition to your marinades and sauces.

You should pick white grape juice, as this is more acidic and less sweet. Add less to the recipe, about half would probably be enough, because after all most of these juices are sweetened already.

#6. Shaoxing wine

Shaoxing wine is also fermented from rice. It is a popular traditional Chinese wine that can be used to drink or cook in Chinese cuisine.

Flavorful Marsala Wine Substitutes That Don’t Compromise on Taste

Though Marsala wine imparts a unique flavor to dishes, in its absence you will be forced to look for a substitute. Here is a list of some substitutes that mimic the wonderful flavor of Marsala wine.

Though Marsala wine imparts a unique flavor to dishes, in its absence you will be forced to look for a substitute. Here is a list of some substitutes that mimic the wonderful flavor of Marsala wine.

While Dry Marsala can be used as an alternative to Sweet Marsala in some recipes, the sweet version may not work as a substitute for the dry type.

Marsala wine is Italy’s most well-known form of fortified wine, produced in Marsala, Sicily. Like its siblings Port, Sherry, and Madeira, this wine contains high alcohol content (17 to 20%). Marsala wine is available in different types that are classified according to the sweetness and age. The low age grades have a low alcohol content. Fine Marsala is less than a year old and has 17% alcohol content. On the other hand, Superiore (aged for more than 2 years) has 18% alcohol content, and Vergine Soleras (aged for more than 5 years) has 18 to 20% alcohol content.

The glorious Marsala wine is prepared from indigenous white grapes such as Catarratto, Grillo, and aromatic Insolia grapes. The combination of these three varieties of grapes is what gives the wine its rich red color. It is available in both sweet and dry forms, and was traditionally served between the first and second course of a meal. However, today it is served chilled with Parmesan, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and various other spicy cheeses. Besides being popular for its consumption as wine, it is also known for its culinary uses.

What to Use Instead of Marsala Wine?

Marsala wine is popularly used in cooking, and is added to scores of cakes and other dishes. While the sweet version is mainly used in desserts and sweet sauces the dry type is used in savory dishes, especially those with turkey, beef, and veal. However, what does one do if the stock of Marsala at home is over? In such situations, one needs to make use of suitable substitutes. Chardonnay or Cabernet are popular as alternatives to Marsala wine. A mixture of equal amounts of brandy and water is also used in place of Marsala. Given below are some commonly used replacements for Marsala wine.

  • If you are looking for a similar taste, Madeira wine would work in place of Marsala. You may also go for Port wine or sherry instead. You can use them in equal amounts.
  • Another option is Amontillado wine, which can be used instead of dry Marsala. Pedro Ximenez is a white Spanish wine that can be used as an alternative to sweet Marsala.
  • If you have both sherry and sweet Vermouth, mix them in equal amounts and use it as a replacement for Marsala wine.
  • When it comes to ideal Marsala substitutes, grape juice is very popular. However, add a small amount of brandy, before use. If you need half a cup of Marsala for preparing a recipe, use half a cup of grape juice mixed with two teaspoons of brandy.
  • You may also use dry white wine as an alternative to Marsala. If the recipe calls for ¼ cup of white wine, use an equal amount of dry white wine mixed with a teaspoon of brandy.
  • Marsala wine can be replaced with a mixture of white wine, brandy and a dash of sugar and salt. Combine two parts white wine with one part brandy and some brown sugar, along with a pinch of salt.
  • Certain fruits like prunes, figs, and plums can be used to prepare a substitute for Marsala wine. All you need to do is to stew any of these fruits and strain them, before adding a small amount of balsamic vinegar.
  • In cake recipes, especially Tiramisu, you can substitute Marsala with watered down red grape juice or cranberry juice. The flavor of course will not be the same, nevertheless, if you really do not take wine, this alternative will work fine.

Apart from the substitutes mentioned above, you can also try adding chicken stock in place of the Marsala. While wines like Madeira are best for replacing Marsala, substitutes without alcohol may not be that effective. If you want the unique flavor of Marsala, you need to get Marsala itself!

Marsala wine is available in all wine stores. Some grocery stores too supply such wines. Just buy a bottle and store it in a dark place. The wine is fortified and lasts for a long time, so always keep a bottle at home, and use it whenever you are preparing the dish that calls for its addition. Dishes like zabligone needs Marsala, as none of the substitutes may work. Even the best substitute cannot impart the flavor that Marsala brings to the dish!

Cooking with Sherry vs Cooking with Marsala

Many of my visitors write me because a recipe will call for using sherry or marsala. They want to know what these wines are, if they are interchangeable, and if they can substitute something else instead.

Marsala is a fortified wine (wine with alcohol added) from Italy -

Sherry is a fortified wine from Spain -

So they are both fortified wines - but they use completely different grapes, completely different techniques. It is sort of like saying a chicken and a turkey are both "birds". They have similar flavors, but not the same flavors. Maybe a better comparison would be saying lambs and pigs are both small mammals, so their meat has similar flavor but not the same.

So certainly you could cook a dish with marsala and it would be tasty - I love veal marsala for example. But it'd be a different flavor than the same dish with sherry.

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.

Why You Should Drink Marsala, Not Just Cook with It

Nothing against your grandma's chicken Marsala, but the time has come to learn about a worthwhile Sicilian wine that deserves better than being reduced into a sauce.

Nothing against your grandma&aposs chicken Marsala, but the time has come to learn about a worthwhile Sicilian wine that deserves better than being reduced into a sauce. Marsala, from Sicily, is made from white grapes, fortified and then aged in casks before release. Its toffee, fig and raisin flavors have a lot in common with those found in certain styles of sherry and Madeira. John Rankin, a buyer at Chambers Street Wines in New York, likes Marsala because with each bottle, “you get a wine that has matured in the cellar of the producer instead of having to take on the aging of the wine yourself.” And though it&aposs fortified, Marsala pairs amazingly well with food, especially potent dishes like strong cheese, curry and the salty seafood preparations from its home region. Like Madeira and sherry, serving size is small and leftovers will last for a long time. So even if you splurge on a high-end bottle, you&aposll get your money&aposs worth. Here, three Marsala producers to try.

Marco De Bartoli
The master of Marsala, his wines are cherished for their complexity and elegance. The bottles are harder to find on these shores𠅊nd pricey𠅋ut worth seeking out.

Cantine Pellegrino
The Marsala Superiore Dry is an excellent entry-level bottling from one of the region&aposs largest family-owned wineries.

Cantine Florio
A large historic estate that makes sweet and dry Marsala at an affordable price, in addition to Passito and other sweet wines.

The alcohol content of cooking wine

As mentioned on several occasions earlier, cooking wine has a higher alcohol content than drinking wine.

On average at around 16%. It’s as high as this because most of the alcohol is burned off during cooking.

Like drinking wine, cooking wine is subject to oxidization, so if you got any leftovers, remember to seal the bottle tightly and refrigerate, unless, of course, you don’t mind cooking with stale wine next time around.

Decanting it won’t help either, so leave that crystal decanter where it is.

Some white cooking wines have a lower ABV than others, so it pays to read the label.

Don’t forget that the alcohol level has a significant effect on the result of any recipe in which you’re using the wine.

It is possible to freeze cooking wine if you want to extend its shelf life.

Just as with any other foodstuff, it’s important to check the expiry date on any bottle of cooking sauce you have before using it.

Remember that it’s not like ordinary drinking wine, which, stored in the right circumstances, can last for many years. Cooking wine does not age in the same way. It will turn into vinegar.

Recipe Summary

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 1 slice onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 2 cups Marsala wine
  • 1 ½ cups chicken stock
  • 5 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon cold water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves - pounded flat
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion, or to taste

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat. Stir mushrooms, onion, and garlic into the melted butter, increase heat to medium-high, and cook and stir the mixture until the mushrooms are golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir Marsala wine, chicken stock, brown sugar, lemon juice, molasses, and corn syrup into the mushroom mixture bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid reduces by about half, 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk cornstarch into cold water in a small bowl. Stream the cornstarch slurry into the Marsala sauce, stirring continually cook and stir until the sauce thickens, another 10 to 15 minutes.

Heat olive oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium heat cook chicken until golden brown until no longer pink in the center and the juices run clear, 3 to 5 minutes per side. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read at least 165 degrees F (74 degrees C).

Arrange each chicken breast into the center of a plate. Drizzle Marsala sauce over each chicken breast garnish with green onion to serve.