Marsala is a fortified wine from the Sicilian region of Marsala. There are dry and sweet varieties. It is widely used in cooking, both savory and sweet dishes.
The production of Marsala wine is strictly watched by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). This is a branch of the Italian government and is done to ensure the integrity of all products labeled Marsala wine.
It was first created in 1773 by a man called John Woodhouse, from Liverpool. He was playing around with fortifying regional wines to mimic the taste of sherry.
It became popular just before the battle of the Nile in 1798. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s staff purchased Marsala wine as a replacement for rum to give to the Mediterranean fleet of the Navy prior to battle.
From here, Marsala became the drink of choice when the British Admiralty were toasting to a victory in battle. By 1812, another British man had settled in Sicily and had begun a separate Marsala wine vineyard.
As Marsala wine is so strictly controlled, it can be difficult to get hold of it sometimes. For this reason, not everyone will have a bottle of Marsala wine hanging about their house to use in cooking.
We have rounded up a selection of some of the best substitutes for Marsala wine in a variety of dishes. These are all incredibly flavorful substitutions and will ensure your food still tastes fantastic.
How is Marsala wine made?
Marsala wine combines 3 grape types - Grillo, Inzolia, and Cataratto. This wine blend is fortified using a neutral-flavored grape brandy.
This then gets sweetened using one of 2 sweetening agents. These are mistela (fermented grape juice that has had the fermentation halted using spirits) or mosto cotto (boiled down must).
Older varieties of Marsala wine were aged using a system known as Solera. This is a process known as dynamic aging.
The wines are added to a barrel and the oldest ones at the bottom are drawn off. These barrels are then topped up with younger wines to age naturally over a longer period.
There are 3 colors of Marsala wine. These are ambra, rubino, and oro. Oro means golden, and these wines cannot be sweetened with mosto cotto.
Rubino is a newer and less common type of Marsala wine that can only be made using red grapes. Ambra translates to amber.
There are also 3 levels of sweetness Marsala wine comes in. These are secco (dry), semisecco (medium dry), and dolce (sweet).
Marsala wine has one more grading scale. This uses the age of the wine to categorize it. The categories are fine, superiore, superiore riserva, vergine or solera, and vergine stravecchio or vergine riserva.
Fine wines must be at least 17% alcohol by volume and 1 year old. Superiore wines are at least 2 years old and 18% alcohol by volume. Superiore Riserva has been aged for at least 4 years and should have 18% alcohol by volume.
Vergine or Solera is also 18% alcohol by volume but has been aged for at least 5 years.
The last category, Vergine Stravecchio or Vergine Riserva contains wines that have been aged for a minimum of 10 years. These also have 18% alcohol by volume and cannot have any sugar added.
Marsala Wine Substitutes
This is also a type of fortified wine, with a similar taste and appearance to Marsala wine. Traditionally it is made using 5 different grape varieties, making for a complex taste.
Amontillado wine is a fortified sherry wine from the Spanish region of Montilla. This works well as a substitute for dry Marsala wine.
Pedro Ximinez is a Spanish white wine that makes an effective substitute for Marsala wine.
Port would also work, although this could be more expensive than using Marsala wine. All of these substitutes can be used in a 1:1 ratio to Marsala wine.
This is not as full-bodied in flavor as Marsala wine but will work if you just need an alcoholic undertone. You should only use drinking sherry and not cooking sherry for this substitute.
This is because cooking sherry has a lot of sodium and other additives which may not pair well with the other flavors in your dish.
Use it in equal quantities to the Marsala wine the recipe calls for.
Sherry and sweet vermouth
If you do not find sherry alone to be an effective substitute, you can combine it with sweet vermouth. This will give a different dimension to the flavor profile and you could prefer it.
To replace every ¼ cup Marsala wine, combine ⅛ cup sherry and ⅛ cup sweet vermouth.
Grape juice and brandy
This is a good substitute to lower the alcohol flavor in your dish. It is an easy substitution made from things you will likely have in your cupboard.
To replace every ¼ cup Marsala wine, combine ¼ cup grape juice with 1 teaspoon of brandy.
White wine, brandy, seasoning
Many people will have a bottle of dry white wine to use here. Marsala is a wine that has been fortified using brandy, meaning this substitute closely mimics the taste.
For every ¼ cup of Marsala wine, your recipe calls for, substitute ¼ cup dry white wine combined with 1 teaspoon of brandy.
If you are using dry white wine, we suggest adding a pinch or two of sugar to add the sweetness Marsala wine would provide. You could even add a pinch of salt to complete the flavor.
Fruit and balsamic vinegar
A slightly more out there suggestion is to stew plums, figs, or prunes for an hour or so. Strain the liquid out and combine with a drop or two of balsamic vinegar.
Use ¼ cup of this concoction to replace every ¼ cup Marsala wine.
Red grape or cranberry juice
You can dilute either of these juices a little using water. This is an effective substitute for sweet recipes, in particular cakes. It is also good if you are making tiramisu for children and wish to have the same impact without any alcohol.
To replace every ¼ cup Marsala wine, substitute ⅜ cup juice combined with ⅛ cup water.
White grape juice, vinegar, and vanilla
There are many people that prefer not to have alcohol in the home. This is another great non-alcoholic substitute for Marsala wine.
To replace ½ cup of Marsala wine, add in ¼ cup white grape juice, 2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar, and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract.
Chicken or vegetable stock
This works best for savory dishes where there is a long simmering or cooking time.
Chicken is usually the better option, but vegetable stock will work too. This provides a more ethical alternative to the dish for non-meat eaters.
Use in equal quantities to the stated Marsala wine.
There are many good substitutes for Marsala wine. The most appropriate choice of substitute depends on the flavor profile of the dish you are making.
As a general rule, other fortified wines are likely to be closer in taste to Marsala wine and often make the best substitutes.
We have also included some non-alcoholic substitutions in case you are teetotal or cooking for children.