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Marsala Wine Substitute | Wine Enthusiast

Marsala Wine Substitute | Wine Enthusiast

Marsala is a fortified wine made in the region surrounding the coastal town of Marsala in Sicily, Italy. The nutty, honeyed beverage can make for elegant sipping—especially before or after a meal. It’s also a beloved ingredient in the kitchen.

Crafted from local Sicilian grape varietals, Marsala reflects the sunny, Mediterranean landscape it calls home. “It’s exposed to heat, in the elements, and that’s what makes it great,” explains Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, Beverage Director at Madrina in St. Louis. “It gives it its delicious nutty, toasted flavors.”

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Like its fortified wine cousins Port, Sherry and Madeira, Marsala is made by adding a distilled grape spirit to a base wine, which bolsters its alcohol content. Marsala can range in sweetness, based on the sugar that remains after fortification, from secco (dry) to semisecco (semi-dry) to dolce (sweet).

Though Marsala is often written off as a cheap cooking wine, quality versions have enjoyed a resurgence in the past decade or so. Austin Bridges, Wine Director at Nostrana in Portland, Oregon, credits this popularity to the beverage’s “nuttiness, richness, sweetness, savory, caramel and acidity”—in other words, a symphony of flavors.

Cooking with Marsala

“Man, oh, man—Marsala is an incredible addition to sauces that need a nutty, caramelized flavor,” says food and wine journalist Henna Bakshi. It’s that complex, rich element that has made Marsala a star in classic Italian and Italian-American dishes like chicken Marsala, veal Marsala and tiramisu.

Its culinary possibilities do not stop there. “Mushrooms and marsala are a match made in culinary heaven,” says Bridges. “They soak up the wine’s essence while preserving their inherent, delightful earthy taste, even allowing for the sugars on their edges to caramelize beautifully.” Sauteed mushrooms and mushroom pasta transcend to a whole other level with a swig of the fortified elixir.

Bridges says Marsala also excels in dishes featuring caramelized onions, meals that include toasted nuts and as a glaze for sweet root vegetables. “It’s an exceptional choice for deglazing a pan, swiftly reducing while freeing up all that delicious food stuck to the bottom, making it an indispensable component of a pan sauce,” he explains. Plus, a little can go a long way.

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Though most cooks tend to use the Italian fortified wine in Italian dishes, Marsala can elevate a wide variety of flavor profiles and cuisines. “I’m from New Delhi, India, where tamarind is used to add a sweet and sour, tongue-popping punch to dishes like chole (chickpea curry) and sambar (a South Indian lentil stew),” she says. Marsala can similarly be used in East Asian curries and other boldly flavored dishes that call for tangy flavors.

Bakshi also likes to “a splash to sautéing onions, ginger and garlic, and cook it off,” she adds. “It contributes a rich, fruit and nut flavor, with layers of burnt sugar, tamarind and notes of tobacco leaf in higher-quality Marsala.”

While Marsala’s depth and intricate flavors can enhance a wide range of dishes, this diversity also means that there are an equally large number of ingredients that can be substituted for the fortified wine when you don’t have any on hand.

Substitutes for Marsala Wine

If Marsala is not close at hand, don’t worry. When selecting a substitute, Bridges begins “by taking stock of what’s already in my kitchen,” he says. “The question isn’t just what I have, but how I can creatively use it—or a combination of things—to enhance my dish.”

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This can include “remnants of wine from a previous evening, a half-finished bottle of sake from dining out, various vermouths teetering on the edge of oxidation, an older bottle of vinegar, an assortment of sugars or even a bottle of rum that’s been sitting around,” says Bridges. “If you look at the most cherished humble dishes from cultures around the globe, you’ll notice a common theme: the utilization of available resources, ensuring nothing goes to waste.”

That said, some substitutes for Marsala work better in certain dishes than others. Check out the ideal swaps below.

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The Italian-American classic of pan-fried chicken cutlets and mushrooms in a rich Marsala wine sauce is just as good—and the difference is barely noticeable—with Oloroso Sherry, which Blackwell-Calvert chooses for its “nuttiness and hint of sweetness, without being cloying.”

Mushroom Marsala Ragu

Mushroom Marsala Ragu

“Since this is a red sauce, go for a heavy red wine or ruby Port as a substitute,” Bridges advises. To emulate the savory, umami notes in Marsala, he adds, “Worcestershire sauce is also a great swap.”

Mushroom Ravioli
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Mushroom Ravioli with Marsala

Sercial, the driest style of Madeira wine, is Blackwell-Calvert’s pick. “It’s perfectly savory, with high acidity to complement the earthiness of the mushrooms,” she says.

Pork Medallions with Marsala Sauce
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Pork Medallions with Marsala Sauce

Bakshi would cook these with Rancio, an often-overlooked style of fortified wine for which producers intentionally expose wine to air or dry heat during aging for a saline, nutty edge—which plays deliciously with delicate pork.

Gorgonzola Marsala Steak
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Gorgonzola and Marsala Steak

Port and gorgonzola are a match made in heaven. Blackwell-Calvert would reach for a 10-year tawny Port and turn it into a reduction. “Its beautiful, candied fruit, raisin flavors and notes of toffee and caramel make it perfect,” she explains.


Tiramisu with Marsala

The Italian dessert tiramisu is often made by soaking delicate ladyfinger sponges in a mixture of espresso, chocolate, rum, vanilla and Marsala. Bakshi chooses to sub Marsala for more strong coffee—a quintessential component of the dessert—plus a dash of rum for a boozy backbone.

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