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 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, it is still used quite frequently as a cooking wine in Italian dishes.
Marsala uses the following grapes:
- white skin/berry grapes: Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino for golden and amber Marsala
- dark red skin/berry grapes: Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola for ruby red
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.
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 dish. 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. It’s one of those staples of cooking, like having lemon juice in your fridge.
If you have serious issues with 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.
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.
PORK CHOPS Marsala
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 4 boneless pork chops – 1/4-1/2 inch thick
- 2 slices thick bacon, diced
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 small white onion
- 2 cups frozen green beans
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 cup Marsala wine
- 1/4 cup sweet cooking sherry
- With a mortar and pestle grind the oregano. Sift together the flour, salt, pepper and oregano. Coat the chicken pieces well.
- In a heavy skillet, heat butter. Add the bacon pieces and stir fry for several minutes. Slice onion into rings and separate. When butter is hot, saute’ onions until just caramelized. Add the mushrooms and green beans and saute until cooked through. Set aside and place pork chops in skillet and brown on both sides about 5 minutes per side over medium heat. Remove and set aside.
- To the skillet, add the wine, lemon juice and sherry. Stir, reduce heat, and cook for about 10 minutes until the sauce is partially reduced and begins to thicken. Return chicken breasts to the skillet. Spoon sauce over the chicken. Cover and cook over low heat for about 5-10 minutes or until chicken is done.