I cook with beer. A lot. I also write a regular feature article for Craft Pittsburgh Magazine all about it that you might want to check out! Unlike wine, beer can get offensive if it isn’t treated properly while cooking which is pretty damn easy to do, truth be told. I am sure I will add and subtract from this list as I go along here, but this is a good enough place to start, right?
I spent a large chunk of my time writing the menus and running a very beer-centric restaurant group, that is actually the job I left this last November. Running places with such a specific concept means catering the menu to match that concept. When I started at the Evil Empire (and I say that with a modicum of affection, I promise) my background was more non-traditional french at its core, I had a passion for bistro-style food and knew that beer was to be drank, but outside of the occasional beer batter I never really thought about putting beer in my food, I always leaned more toward wine. Wow was that a mistake.
Discovering beer as a flavor component IN food as well as WITH food was kind of a revelation. There are so many more flavors to play with, subtleties to appreciate and options that are readily available than with wine. I jumped right in and started screwing around to see what I could make and how it could work. Let me drop some knowledge on you…
Soap Box Warning!!! To quantify – when I say “beer” I am NEVER talking about fizzy, yellow, flavorless, brewed with corn, revolting, wish they were adult beverages. I am talking about craft & imports. Real beer. Brewed with malt and hops, not corn/rice and flavor extracts. I do not drink it, I do not cook with it, I do not give it even a dime of my money and would prefer it if no one I knew ever did either. Of the biggest “creators” of that swill and its derivatives none are American in any way ~ AB-InBev is owned by a Belgian company, Miller & Coors are both operated by a joint partnership of SAB Miller (British) and Molson-Coors (Canadian). I dont give a rat’s ass what their ads say – they brew shitty beer and represent themselves as American companies when in reality most of the money they generate leaves our country. Even if you want, for some reason, to drink flavorless beer there are still quite a few left here that make that crap – Yuengling, Pabst, Straub – give THEM your money, they are def more deserving than any of the Big 3. –Soap Box Off–
Back to knowledge bombs…
- Hops ~ Friend or Enemy? Really could go either way. First a bit of brewing knowledge. Hops added during the boil are meant for bittering, hops added at the end are more for aroma purposes – good to know – but what happens when you reduce beer when you are cooking? It boils. What happens to hops when boiled? They get ridiculously bitter. So no matter WHY the hops were added by the brewer, if you reduce that beer it is going to amplify the hop bitterness 10 fold. In some things, like beer bread, soft pretzels or a beer batter you want that sharpness that the hops will bring, it is the only way that you will know there is beer in there at all, but you are not reducing the beer, it is but one component of the whole thing. But in other methods of cooking – like a stew, braised chicken, or in a sauce – it can make it inedibly bitter. If your desire is to simmer and reduce that beer at all, concentrate the flavors or just cook for an extended period of time I generally stay away from hops. Hops are also not limited to just Double IPAs or IPAs ~ amber ales, pale ales, stouts & porters can also be sneaky on the hops, so taste before adding it in, you can’t just pick it out.
- Beer tastes different at room temp than it does cold, and the flavors that you will be amplifying through the cooking process are the ones present when its warm, taste it warm first. Perfect example and a beer that I cook with as often as I can – Gulden Draak. Its a Belgian, sweet, higher ABV and one of my faves to quaff. When it is cold the flavors are blunt – you catch mostly sweet, some mustiness, prunes and caramel. As it warms the caramel turns to a more butterscotch flavor, the prune turns into a sweeter and crisper grape flavor, the mustiness deepens and gives the beer some depth and the sweet becomes less cloying and more nuanced. The 2 beers are completely different. But are totally the same according to the label.
- Some things do not warrant an expensive or flavorful beer and its a waste of money. Beer Can Chicken is a prime example. The purpose of the beer is to 1) help the chicken cook faster by, in essence, steaming the chicken from the inside and 2) keep it moist through a dry cooking method. It really doesn’t impart a whole lot of flavor from the beer itself – the flavor comes from your seasoning. In recipes like this a PBR is as good as a decent pale ale. Beer bread is the same – the best I’ve ever made I made with Straub, the worst was with a Hop Wallop. Don’t waste a good beer.
- Another good rule – don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t drink; this goes for beer AND wine. If it doesn’t taste good as a beverage it won’t be good in your food.
- Red Wine Substitution – Belgian and Belgian styles like doubles and strong ales, are, unfortunately due to the cost, the best substitution for red wines in most recipes. Belgian beers are generally very mildly, if at all noticeably, hopped and have a lot of complexity that works as well as, if not better in most cases, than red wine. My favorites are Gulden Draak, Petrus Oud Bruin, Leffe Brown, Bornem XX, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Delirium Nocturnum. Porters, stouts & bock styles are also rock stars as long as they aren’t hoppy. Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout, New Holland Poet, Furthermore Knot Stock, Penn Dark, Troegs Troegenator XX Bock
- White Wine Substitution – Another area that Belgians & Belgian styles tend to work best due to their complexity. Generally a Triple, pale, amber or golden ale is the best thing to use. You still want to stay away from hops due to the bitterness factor, but the yeasty sweeter versions are perfect. Dryer styles are also great, like saisons, farm house ales and even gueze are amazing – they just tend to be only available in big bottles and can be pricey. My faves: Bornem XXX, Ename, Augustijn & Augustijn Grand Cru, DeKoninck Amber, Leffe Blonde, Orval
- Mussels & Shellfish – So good they deserve their own section. Still best with any of the white wine substitutions but hops are also can be ok here. The sweetness of the seafood helps any bitterness balance and, when used as the cooking liquid, are generally not reduced to stupid bitter. Most shellfish is cooked quickly and at high heat, this allots for the exception to the rule. At the other end of the spectrum are beers that are naturally not all that flavorful – things like wheat beers, wits & hefeweizens. I usually dont cook with these, not a lot of flavor there to work with, but the citrus undertones work well with shellfish & seafood, they just dont take center stage, the other ingredients do. Some of my favorite beer to cook this way with: DeKoninck Amber, Troegs Pale, Penn Imperial Pils, Celis White, Allagash Wit, Wittekerke, Orval
- Fruit Beers – These have next to no hops in them at all and usually are ridiculously powerful as far as tartness and flavor. I use these a lot in desserts because they impart a hell of a lot of flavor and acidity. I don’t use these much for savory cooking. the Lindeman’s line is a fave for making desserts and dessert sauces.