From traditional French dishes such as Coq au Vin and beef Bourguignon to Italian-influenced fare like chicken Marsala and wine-infused risottos, the tradition of cooking with wine is well established. But what about cooking with beer?
Beer’s culinary roots date far in the past, where it was used as the primary liquid ingredient in cooking due to the brewing process, which made it safer to drink than water.
The Egyptians believed that Osiris, the God of agriculture, taught humans how to make beer; the Babylonians made more than a dozen different varieties of beer from various grains and honey around 4000 B.C. And in terms of beer’s role in the kitchen: numerous colonial American documents include references of meals being prepared with the sudsy libation.
“Instead of writing a term paper for my Middle English class, I catered a medieval feast and researched all the recipes, many of which called for cooking in ale or beer,” recalls Lucy Saunders, founder of beercook.com and author of numerous beer-based cookbooks including Cooking With Beer: Taste-Tempting Recipes and Creative Ideas for Matching Beer & Food; Grilling with Beer: Bastes, BBQ Sauces, Mops, Marinades & More Made with Craft Beer; and The Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer.
Beer lends itself to a wide variety of cooking styles and techniques, including braising, marinating, deglazing, poaching and even baking. Sean Paxton, who writes for Beer Advocate and Draft Magazine as well as for his own Web site, homebrewchef.com, frequently collaborates with pub owners and craft brewers across the country to host exclusive multi-course beer dinners. “Cooking with beer is an art,” he says, “Looking at the beer as an ingredient and working it into a recipe to highlight its flavors brings a level of sophistication to a dish.”
“I like the flavors and texture of beer on the palate, and it’s a versatile ingredient,” agrees Saunders. Adding the aroma and flavor components of a quality beer to a well-crafted recipe such as braised lamb shanks results in more complex and flavorful final product.
It’s very important to take into consideration each ingredient in any given recipe to try and find the best beer style for the particular dish. And the good news? “With all the new craft beers available, the flavor wheel just got a whole lot bigger,” Paxton notes. “It’s important to know your main ingredient very well,” he adds. “Try some of the new craft beers out there; brewers are looking at beer as more than a beverage, but as art in a glass.” There are thousands of selections in the market for both domestic crafts and imports, with each bottle presenting its own unique profile of scents, textures and tastes. “I also recommend that chefs experiment with beer tasting and understand how beer is made,” Saunders says. “Sampling is fun, especially at festivals.”
Cooking with beer can also have its challenges, especially when it comes to highly hopped beers like IPAs or imperial ales. “Beer can be a bit trickier to cook with, due to the presence of hops bitterness, which can become extra bitter or skunky with high heat reductions,” Saunders notes.
Even one of the greatest beer and food proponents, Brewmaster Garret Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, New York, admits to the difficulties that cooking with beer can pose: “Actually, as much as I hate to say it, even though I generally feel that beer is the superior drink for food matching, I’d give wine the edge for most cooking,” he says. “Bitterness is a complicating factor for many recipes. Unless the dish calls for long simmering time, which breaks down bitterness much as it does wine tannins, then the beer used should be low in bitterness. In Belgium, for example, wheat beers are often used as the bases for classic dishes such as moules frites [mussels with fries] or waterzooi [a chicken stew]. Wheat beers have plenty of flavor, but relatively low bitterness, so they’re often suitable.”
One saving grace for beer in cooking, as noted by Paxton, is its ageability. “Beer ages very nicely, like good wine and Ports,” he points out. “With age, the hop bitterness drops out, allowing the beer to round out and become a whole new beast.”
If you’re looking for more elevated, or at least less mainstream, beerfood applications such as beer-battered fried foods and Guinness stew, here are three fine beer-based recipes that are sure to transform the way you view cooking with beer. While all of these recipes will pair exceptionally well with the beers that they are prepared with, you can always think outside the box, too: “Rethink pairings,” Paxton says. “There are many beers available that are complex, unique, long lasting and with carbonation and bitterness… a huge addition to the palate.”
And you can also think simple, per Oliver’s suggestion: “My most common use for Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout is to make an ice cream float. It’s really delicious!”
Jicama, Apple, Fennel, Sweet Pepper, and Orange Salad with an Éphémère Ale and Mint Vinaigrette
This recipe, reprinted from The Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer by Lucy Saunders, is a kaleidoscope of color perfect for the spring to summer season. “Jicama is a tuber, much like a potato with the crispness of an apple,” says Brew Chef Tim Schafer. “The marriage of these ingredients makes not only a colorful salad, it makes a wonderfully crunchy accompaniment to tender barbecue. Éphémère is an apple-scented ale made by the great Unibroue brewery in Chambly, outside Montreal, Quebec.”
1 small jicama, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, cored, seeds removed and
1 Rome or Red Delicious apple, cored, seeds removed
and thinly sliced
1 small bulb fennel, greens trimmed, split and
1 sweet red bell pepper, cored, seeds removed and
1⁄2 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 navel oranges, seeds removed and segmented
2 ounces apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
10 fresh mint leaves, sliced
4 ounces olive oil
2 ounces apple ale like Éphémère or hard cider
2 teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
Place jicama, apples, fennel, pepper and onion into mixing bowl; add orange segments and set aside. To make dressing, blend vinegar, mustard, mint, oil, ale, sugar and salt and pepper to taste in a blender. Toss salad with dressing and serve immediately.
Grand Cru Braised Lamb Shanks Served with a Dried Fig and Winter Spiced Sauce
Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton’s recipe uses a full-bodied beer, with its complex flavors taking center stage. The beer, Chimay Grande Reserve (Cru) or Blue, has notes of dried fruit, plum, fig and some spice from the yeast, playing up the richness and subtle gamey notes of the lamb. Paxton notes that Rochefort 10 and Allagash Grand Cru would also be excellent selections for this recipe.
4 lamb shanks
Sea salt and pepper
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
2 shallots, peeled and minced
750 ml Grand Cru style beer, such as Chimay Blue
3 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1⁄2 cup dried figs, stem removed and quartered
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole coriander
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Wash each lamb shank under cold water to remove any blood or fat and pat dry. Sprinkle each with salt, pepper and flour, coating evenly on all sides. Place a dutch oven or large sauté pan over medium heat; add olive oil to coat pan and add two lamb shanks. Brown evenly on all four sides, about 4 minutes per side. Remove and repeat with remaining shanks and set aside on a plate. Add more oil if needed to the pan and add carrots, celery, leeks, shallots and cook until the vegetables are slightly browned, about 8 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the beer, then chicken stock, removing any of the food with a wooden spoon. Add thyme, figs, brown sugar, coriander, cloves and cinnamon stick, mixing well.
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Add the browned lamb shanks back to the pot and submerge them into the vegetables. Bring the whole mixture to a low simmer. Turn off the stove, cover the pot and place into the middle of the oven for 3 hours or until the meat is fork tender and almost falling from the bone.
To prepare the sauce, carefully remove the lamb shanks and place on a large plate. Wrap with foil to keep warm. Using a strainer, remove the vegetables and whole seasonings from the stock/beer and place remaining liquid into a saucepan over low heat. Simmer until the liquid has reduced by half; taste and adjust seasonings. Serve shank over celery root purée (as listed on homebrewchef.com) with sauce poured on top. Serves four.
Allagash White Beer Sabayon
This recipe comes from L’Espalier in Boston, as posted on Allagash Brewing Company’s Web site, allagash.com. Sabayon, also known by its Italian name, zabaglione, is a simple dessert. It can be served warm, cold, frozen or as a substitute for the custard filling of certain pies. Some people complement sabayon with fruit; this recipe simply calls for whipped cream.
1⁄3 cup egg yolks
21⁄2 ounces sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon lemon zest
1⁄2 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup Allagash White
1⁄2 cup whipped cream
Set up a double boiler (a medium-sized bowl nestled on top of a saucepan with an inch of water simmering in it, so there is no direct contact with the water, only steam); leave to heat. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest on medium speed until well combined; the mixture should turn a light yellow color. Pour the beer into the double boiler, and slowly add the egg mixture, stirring constantly.
Use an electric mixer or whisk to beat the eggs over the heat until the mixture thickens, like a custard. Continue for at least 10–15 minutes until the mixture is almost three times the original size. Remove from heat when done cooking. In separate bowl, whip cream; fold into egg mixture.