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Sherry

By Cook's Illustrated Published October 2012

How we tested

What is Sherry and How is It Made?

Sherry, a wine fortified with brandy, can be made dry or very sweet, with flavors that range from nutty and figlike to citrusy or melon-y. Originating in the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, authentic sherries get their flavor from aging in a series of partially filled casks that let the wine make contact with the air. This oxidation intensifies the flavors, which winemakers balance by adding younger wines and rotating the contents of the barrels from newer to older; this is called the solera process after the set of barrels. The solera system determines when the sherry gets bottled. As a final step, brandy is added. The youngest, least fortified sherry is fino. Older amontillado and palo cortado sherries are more oxidized and use more brandy, making them tawny, higher in alcohol, and earthier.

Spanish Sherry versus American Sherry

All dry Spanish sherries, including our winner, are made from dry palomino grapes; sweet ones use Pedro Ximénez grapes; and medium- or off-dry sherries blend the two. According to Spanish law, all sherry—sweet, dry, or medium—must come from the area around Jerez. In the United States, sherry can be made anywhere and with any grape. Some large-scale American producers speed flavor development by relying on the Tressler system, which involves baking the wine at a low temperature instead of aging it. Taylor Dry Sherry, made from Concord grapes, is baked at 140 degrees until it develops the aroma, flavor, and color that producers are after; usually this takes two to three weeks.

Tasting Various Sherries in a Sweet Application

Recipes more often call for dry sherry, since sweet sherry concentrates as it cooks down and the sweetness overpowers other tastes. We tried Taylor and one sherry cooking wine plus three widely available brands from Spain, including one medium-dry sherry, to determine which we liked best in Marlborough Apple Pie. The “robust,” “toffee”-like flavors of older, darker sherries provided pleasing “earthy” and “nutty” qualities in the pie. Lighter fino sherry, which some compared to fresh apples or green grapes, passed muster but did not rate as high. Salt-laden cooking sherry was our least favorite in our pie. It was a far cry from the “toasty,” “pecan”-like flavors of our winner, Lustau Palo Cortado Península Sherry, which is aged for 11 to 12 years in the solera system.

Tasting Various Sherries in a Savory Application

Since many savory recipes call for sherry, we sampled each brand again in creamed pearl onions. Tasters had a hard time finding sherry flavor in any sample, but this time, cooking sherry was far less objectionable. Our science editor explained that its saltiness worked better in this application. “The cream in the sauce mutes the salty taste, and it’s not unusual for us to like the taste of a little salt in a dish like creamed onions,” he said. But considering that cooking sherry also uses preservatives (potassium sorbate and potassium metabisulfite), we’ll pass. And since we preferred our winning sherry for sipping and in pie and rated it high in pearl onions, we’ll stick with that and add any salt ourselves.

Our Favorite Sherry

Our favorite sherry is the oldest and most expensive product in our lineup, but in this case you get what you pay for.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*