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.
What Is Sherry?
Sherry originated in Spain where it's made from white grapes, mainly the Palomino, which produces a dry sherry, and the Pedro Ximenez, or "PX," which is used to make the sweet versions. Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that it's made from fermented grapes and then has additional distilled alcohol added to it. This technique was originally done as a means of preserving the wine. Vermouth, port, Madeira, and marsala are also examples of fortified wines.
Dry Sherry vs. Sweet Sherry
In addition to the distinct grapes that are used to make each sherry, dry and sweet sherries are also produced differently. To make dry sherry, the spirit is added after the sugar has been converted to alcohol, resulting in a less sweet, stronger wine. Adding distilled alcohol while the fermentation is still taking place—usually grape spirit or brandy—kills the remaining yeast, leaving more sugar and resulting in a sweeter wine.
Drinking Sherry vs. Cooking Sherry
Another sherry product that is available is called cooking sherry. While drinking sherry is sold with other liquors alongside the vermouths and ports, cooking sherry is found in the grocery aisle with the vinegar.
What distinguishes cooking sherry from drinking sherry is that cooking sherry has a significant amount of salt added, which is included as a preservative but renders it undrinkable. When added to savory dishes, cooking sherry fine, but if making a dessert, that amount of salt will be unwelcome. However, in addition to the salt, cooking sherry is a lower-quality wine to start with, so as a general rule, drinking sherry is always better.
Dry Sherry Substitutes
Whenever looking for an ingredient substitute, the most obvious is something that is similar. Since sherry is a fortified wine, it stands to reason that any other fortified wine will work in its place. Your best bet is going to be another dry fortified wine such as white vermouth. Dry versions of Maderia and marsala are also acceptable. You can also substitute a dry white wine like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, or sémillon. Dry sparkling wines will also work when used in small amounts.
Sweet Sherry Substitutes
As with dry sherries, the best substitute for a sweet sherry is another sweet fortified wine. Examples are port, which is generally rich and sweet, as well as sweet vermouth, which is red rather than white. Sweet Maderia and marsala are also good choices.
Red wines like cabernet sauvignon, grenache, malbec, merlot, shiraz, or zinfandel will also work but will lack sweetness, as will sweet dessert wines like muscat, gewurztraminer, or sauternes. These wines should be okay if just a small amount of sherry is called for in the recipe.
If you don't have access to any wine whatsoever, or if you prefer to cook without alcohol, there are a few non-alcoholic sherry substitutes to try.
As a substitute for dry sherry, try apple cider vinegar. For small amounts, like a tablespoon or two, you can use it full strength, but if the recipe calls for more, it's a good idea to dilute the vinegar with water. For example, 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar and 1/2 cup of water would substitute for 1 cup of dry sherry. This is probably the best non-alcoholic substitute, especially for quantities of 1/2 cup or more. For a sweet sherry substitute, add a bit of sugar to the apple cider vinegar.
Chicken stock and fruit juice are also decent replacements. If you need to substitute for smaller quantities in sweet recipes, vanilla extract can be used; use a teaspoon of vanilla for every tablespoon of sherry the recipe calls for. Just remember that the more you substitute, the more your dish will differ from the way it was intended.