If you’ve ever been to an Italian restaurant, you’ve encountered Marsala wine. Veal Marsala, chicken Marsala and many other classic Italian meals get their name simply by being cooked in this flavorful wine. But if you happen to be out of your vintage bottle of Marsala wine, don’t fret — most kitchens have enough of the secret ingredients on hand to fake a Marsala wine flavor.
Whether its because you don’t have Marsala on hand, or because you’d rather not have even traces of alcohol in your food, Marsala-like flavors are easily to create, though the exact flavor can not be faked. If you don’t mind alcohol and have a reasonably well-stocked liquor cabinet, just reach for dry sherry, Madeira wine, or Port. Any of these will be close enough to Marsala so that you get the bulk of the flavor you want. Of the three, Madeira is the closest match and the best substitute. Sherry is the last choice because it is salty, and also because its possible one of your guests will recognize the sherry taste and see where you “skimped” — if you consider this skimping. You can disguise the sherry taste a bit better by mixing it with vermouth (half and half sherry and vermouth). This will also add a little more complexity to the sometimes flat sherry taste.
If you have no sherry, Madeira or Port, check your stocks again and see if there’s a bit of brandy. You can mix brandy and grape juice for a Marsala fake. Use 12 parts grape juice to one part brandy, or a third of a cup of grape juice and one tablespoon brandy. If you’ve got no brandy, a Burgandy wine will work just as well, and you could probably skip the grape juice, too.
For those of you who want to skip the alcohol entirely, well, the most commonly suggested substitute is just chicken stock. Sprinkle in some sugar (less than a teaspoon). If you have figs or prunes available, puree them with some rosemary and sage blended in and add it to the recipe about a teaspoon at a time. With a little bit of the right pepper you might end up with something really wonderful, though it will not pass muster with an Italian grandmother expecting veal Marsala.
Consider getting a real bottle of Marsala wine next time. While you can fake the taste somewhat, there really is no substitute. And once you’ve used it in a recipe and know what it can do for food, you’ll want to use it much more often — it will not be like one of those exotic spices gathering dust on your herb rack.
You will also have your bottle a long time, because Marsala wine is fortified, which means, roughly, that it has a lot of alcohol in it. Keep your Marsala wine in a cool dark place and be sure you the real McCoy Marsala wine (preferably from a wine store), not Marsala cooking wine, which is just a marketing term for “of less quality”.