Occasionally a recipe will call for sherry, and even though the amount called for is typically small, sherry imparts a unique flavor and acidic quality that can really enhance the flavor of whatever dish you're preparing.
But what if you don't have sherry? Even though it's easy to find, you might not feel like running to the store to buy a bottle when you only need a tablespoon. Fortunately, there are a few substitutes for sherry.
What Is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that it's made from fermented grapes and then has additional distilled alcohol added to it. This 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
Apart from the different grapes that are used to make each one, dry and sweet sherries are produced differently. 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. Adding the spirit later, after the sugar has been converted to alcohol, results in a less sweet, stronger wine (i.e. dry sherry).
Drinking Sherry vs. Cooking Sherry
Another sherry product you may encounter is called cooking sherry. While drinking sherry is sold alongside the vermouths and ports, cooking sherry is found in the grocery aisle alongside the vinegars.
What distinguishes cooking sherry from drinking sherry is that cooking sherry has a significant amount of salt added which is intended as a preservative but has the effect of rendering it undrinkable. Added to savory dishes, it's fine, but for a dessert you won't necessarily want to add that amount of salt. In general, drinking sherry is better. Not only does cooking sherry contain salt, it's a lower-quality wine to start with.
Substitutes for Dry Sherry
If you're looking for a sherry substitute because you don't have any handy, the most obvious substitute is a similar ingredient. Since sherry is a fortified wine, it stands to reason that any other fortified wine will work. Your best bet is going to be another dry fortified wine such as white vermouth. Dry versions of Maderia and marsala are also available.
You can also substitute a dry white wine like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, or sémillon. Dry sparkling wines will also work. But don't worry too much about it. You're likely only using a tablespoon or two at the most, so it's not going to have a huge impact on the overall flavor of the dish.
Substitutes for Sweet Sherry
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 quite common.
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. If the recipe calls for a small amount, any wine you happen to have on hand will do the job just as well.
Finally, because you might not have access to any wine whatsoever, or because you might be making a conscious effort to cook without alcohol, there are a few non-alcoholic substitutes you can try.
If you're looking for something to substitute for dry sherry, try apple cider vinegar. For small amounts, like a tablespoon or two, you can use it full strength, but if you're using more, it's a good idea to dilute it with water. In other words, 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar and 1/2 cup of water would substitute for one cup of dry sherry. This is probably the best non-alcoholic substitute, especially for quantities of half a cup or more. For sweet sherry, you could do the same but add a bit of sugar.
Chicken stock and fruit juice are also decent substitutes. If you need to substitute for smaller quantities, vanilla extract or even brewed coffee can also be used. The vanilla extract is probably best in sweet recipes; 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.