Cooking with Beer
As the varieties and flavors of beer continue to expand, imaginative chefs are increasingly turning to ales and lagers to spice up their recipes.
Wisconsin-based cookbook author and educator Lucy Saunders is succinct when she describes how her love affair with beer in the kitchen began. "I started cooking with beer because I love the taste of beer," she says.
Many an amateur cook would likely echo those words. Equally likely is the fact that unlike Saunders, the rest of us got our start creating something somewhat less inventive than her first beer recipe: West Indian ginger fruitcake for which she first marinates the chopped dried fruit in stout. No, for us it was more probably a slosh of lager into the chili pot, poured as an afterthought from the bottle we were drinking.
What Saunders already knew in her early explorations into what the Belgians call la cuisine à la bière is what chefs across the United States are quickly discovering today—that the tremendous range of flavors in modern lagers and ales makes beer a natural ingredient in all sorts of dishes, from stews and salad dressings to pancakes and "birramisú." Simply put, no other ingredient is more versatile.
Consider for a moment the array of beers available to an American chef. There are currently an estimated 1,600 breweries in the United States, producing beer in 65-70 basic styles, plus countless fringe interpretations such as chicory-flavored stout and chocolate porter. Add to that the wealth of brews imported from around the world, plus the fact that creative brewers can choose from a limitless list of ingredients when crafting their beers, and you have a palette of flavors overflowing with possibilities.
Of course, having all that beer at your disposal and knowing what to do with it are two different things. Even for professional chefs, learning how to properly use beer in the kitchen can be a long process of trial and error. It’s a process Saunders tries to simplify through her website, beercook.com.
"When I first started cooking with beer, I didn’t fully understand its complexities," explains Tim Schafer, chef-owner of Tim Schafer’s Cuisine in Morristown, New Jersey, and owner of www.brewchef.com. "I was doing too much of what I now consider the greatest sin in beer cuisine: gratuitously adding beer to dishes," he admits.
A dish should be elevated by the addition of beer, explains Schafer, noting that it’s quite pointless to add beer to a stew or chili purely for the sake of doing so. He also adds that, as when cooking with wine, you should never cook with a beer you wouldn’t want to drink.
Easy does it
In addition to quality, quantity is also an issue, says Candy Schermerhorn, author of The Great American Beer Cookbook.
"The biggest mistake people make is thinking that because beer usually comes in 12-ounce bottles, that’s the amount you have to add," says Schermerhorn, "Sometimes, as little as a tablespoon will do the trick."
"Any time people open a package, especially of something perishable like beer, they tend to want to use all the contents," says Saunders. "My advice is: Put the cap back on and save the rest for another time. Flat beer works well in housemade mustard sauces and marinades."
Deciding what beer to use in any given recipe is also a confounding issue for many budding beer cooks. This is especially true, says Saunders, where hoppy beers are concerned.
"If you concentrate wine or beer, neither will be very drinkable," she observes. "The wine will be fruitier and more intensely astringent and sour-sweet, like a fruit vinegar—while, depending on the style, the beer may become very bitter because of the hops."
Though Schafer chooses to address hoppy bitterness with the addition of sweetness, Saunders looks to herbs and seasonings that parallel the character of the hops. "I like piney, resinous herbs such as rosemary, lavender and oregano," she says. "Also citrus flavors, all the alliums—garlic, scallions, et cetera—and chilies and curries from Asian cuisines."
Paying attention to hoppiness is also on the mind of Dan Gordon, cofounder of the Gordon Biersch brewery-restaurant chain and now head of the production brewery of the same name. "Beer is a natural MSG," Gordon enthuses, "It enhances the flavor of any meat, but you do have to be careful about bitterness. Braising in Gordon Biersch restaurants has always been done in 50-50 solutions of beer and water."
From Belgium with love
Because Gordon attended the venerable Munich brewing school at Weihenstephan, his culinary influences are firmly rooted in Bavaria. But for most chefs now discovering the challenges and rewards of cooking with beer, inspiration comes from a little farther north. In Belgium the romance with beer in both kitchen and café is what Schafer calls "spiritual."
"Since the Middle Ages, brewers in Belgium have experimented with herbs, spices, berries and fruits in their beers," writes Ruth Van Waerebeek in her classic Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook. "The same imaginative approach is part of Belgian culinary tradition, especially when it comes to cooking with beer."
Belgium’s beers are well-suited to this imagination. Characteristically far more malty than hoppy, they present a full gamut of flavors from fruit-flavored lambics (a traditional style of spontaneously-fermented wheat beer) to rich, chocolatey ales and beers spiced with all kinds of seasonings. In beer-focused restaurants like La Villette in Brussels and Watou’s Hommelhof, not to mention in many of the country’s palaces of haute cuisine, these beers translate into some of the most sophisticated cuisine the world has to offer. As with all ingredients, it’s just a matter of finding the right beer for the job.
"For me, it’s hard to set general rules for cooking with beer because there is such a tremendous range of beer styles and flavors," counsels Saunders. "I encourage chefs to taste a range of beer styles and then choose beers that will be most harmonious for their menus." Pretty much the advice one would expect from a chef who simply loves the taste of beer.
For more recipes, pick up a copy of the October 2002 issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.