Simple ways to take your brew from the can to the kitchen table
instead of getting boozy on brew, why not try cooking with it? It’s common practice in parts of Europe—particularly Belgium, where it’s referred to as cuisine à la bière—and can work wonders with an array of foods. Read on for easy tips and tricks that’ll make for a delicious holiday and beyond.
Why Beer Works
“Beer is as versatile, if not more versatile, than wine,” says Alison Boteler, chef and author of The Gourmet’s Guide to Cooking with Beer. In America, it’s only been in the past few years that beer’s been viewed as an artisan product the way wine is. “Our friends in the wine industry got the jump on us,” says Samuel Adams brewmaster Grant Wood. “In some ways [the beer industry] shot themselves in the foot because they got paired with chips and dip and hot dogs. But…we can deliver flavor to the white tablecloth just as well as wine can. Beer is typically lower in alcohol and lighter in flavor, and it has spices that can really complement food.”
Light vs. Dark Brews
If you’ve ever come across a recipe asking for beer, it probably said just that: beer. And if you never cooked with it before, you most likely grabbed whatever you had in the fridge and felt disappointed with the results. But it’s important to know that, just like white and red wine, light and dark beers have distinct flavors and aromas, and you need to pair the right type with the right dish. As a general rule, use wheat beers and lambics for chicken and seafood; choose ale, porter or stout when cooking pork, beef or lamb. Believe it or not, beer also works for dessert. Use light, fruity varieties, such as a raspberry lambic, with sorbet or in trifles; Imperial stout, which has notes of coffee and chocolate, pairs well with chocolate and ice cream desserts.
Ideas to Get You Started
1. Fried Foods: Firing up the fryer for shrimp or onion rings? Replace the seltzer with light beer (lager is best) for a better, more tempura-like batter. “The beer is used because of the carbonation,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food. “The carbonation, along with the sugars, allows the batter to brown better and faster. It opens it up, essentially making the batter more airy.”
2. Stews: Beer is a fantastic replacement for stock or wine in a recipe, “anything where you can use liquid in a reduction,” Boteler says. “It’s great when you don’t have a can of chicken stock in the cabinet.” It’s especially delicious in beef stew. Use something robust with punch, such as Guinness (a stout) or an ale. In a similar vein, you can replace the wine used in Boeuf Bourguignon with beer—essentially, you’ll have the Belgian favorite, Carbonnade Flamande. If you’d rather try a lighter stew, Oliver recommends using a wheat beer with fish or chicken to create Waterzooi, a Belgian recipe similar to bouillabaisse.
3. Beer Bread: Beer bread is an Irish classic that uses beer instead of yeast (which can also work for some pizza dough recipes). It’s a snap to make and results in a very dense, moist, chewy loaf. Unless you’re craving a dark, tart bread, shy away from beers like Guinness and use a light-styled lager.
4. Marinades: This is the easiest way to use beer. Oliver likes to marinate lamb overnight in a combination of dark beer, onions and lots of black pepper (just don’t use the mix for cooking; discard it after marinating). Grant Wood also encourages cooks to use beer for marinating. “The great thing about beer is you really don’t have to worry about the timer. Beer doesn’t have as much acidity as wine, so you can marinate it for longer,” he says. “I’ve heard professional chefs talk about putting beef in beer for a couple of days.” He adds that beer is terrific for steaks because it helps caramelize and brown the outside.
5. Mussels: Traditionally mussels are steamed with white wine, but a light beer, such as a non-fruit lambic, is an ideal substitute.
6. Beer Floats: It doesn’t get any more straightforward than this. Oliver suggests pairing cold stout with a scoop of ice cream. “I’ve done it with everything from vanilla to mint chocolate chip,” he says.
7. Other Uses: In spaghetti sauce (Boteler mixes it with canned sauce that she then reduces); chili (pick a porter to enhance the smoky flavor); cheese soup or French onion soup (instead of the wine); fondue; or barbecue sauce (try a fruity ale).
How Low Should You Go?
When cooking, let flavor—not price—guide you. American-style lagers (Budweiser, Coors, Miller) are the most common beer in the U.S., and are mild and lower in alcohol. They get a bad rap for being cheap, but they can have their place when cooking certain foods. “I always vote for a little more flavor,” Woods says, “but if you’re making biscuits, you might want to use something lighter with less flavor.” Lagers are good for breads, beer batter and the ultimate grill classic: beer-can chicken. When you want the beer to make a stronger statement—for example, in a beef soup or dessert—go for a variety with more gusto (and yes, a slightly higher price tag).
What Not To Do
1. Think all beers are the same. Know what you’re cooking with and don’t interchange beers if the recipe calls for something specific. “With wine you have acidity and tannins; with beer you have bitterness and hops,” explains Oliver. “If you have a very bitter beer, you have to allow time for the bitterness to break down or you’re going to end up with that taste in your dish or sauce, which you may not want.” If this happens, Woods has some helpful advice: Add a touch of sugar, brown sugar or honey to balance out the flavors.
2. Use bad beer. Boteler recalls an interview with Julia Child, who put it perfectly: “If you put rotgut in, you’re going to get rotgut out.” In other words, if it’s not something you’d drink, then don’t cook with it.
3. Use beer to deglaze a dish.
4. Play around with baking recipes. “Beer acts as a leavening agent,” Boteler says. “It will change the chemistry. If you just throw beer in, you could be very surprised that you baked a volcano in the oven. Baking is an exact science; cooking is more of a forgiving science.” She adds that flat beer is sometimes better to use, because it’s not as foamy and unstable as a new bottle.