If you’ve ever splashed beer on your steaks as they cook on an open grill, then it might be said that you have “cooked with beer.” Likewise, if you’ve popped open a cold one while preparing a meal in the kitchen, you might also consider that you know how to “cook with beer.” While beer is a universally-beloved beverage, few think about how best to use it as a flavorful ingredient in elaborate and exquisite dishes.
Some restaurants specialize in cooking with beer, with each beer-inspired dish accompanied by a glass of the beer included in the recipe. Just like drinking the same red wine that you used to make a sauce along with the sauce itself enhances the flavor and offers a sort of taste-based dialogue between beverage and dish, sipping a beer used in cooking will have the same effect. The famous eponymous flagship restaurant of Daniel Boulud offers a popular suckling pig dish, a high-end version of the traditional Alsatian meal of a pork chop, sauerkraut and beer. The sauerkraut and pork chop are both cooked with beer, the former in an Abbey ale, the latter in a Dubbel. Perhaps most surprising is that beer can work in dessert. At Le Bernardin it can, at least. The Black Forest Cake there is not spiked with liquor, as is traditional, but with Lindemans Kriek Lambic—a cherry-infused beer, which is also used in an accompanying black cherry sorbet.
BEER BATTER FOR DEEP-FRYING
Anything that can be fried, can be dipped in a beer-based batter that adds flavor and heft to the golden, crispy crust that will form through deep-frying. While most batters simply combine egg (which functions as a glue) with a powdery coating (breadcrumbs and flour), it is no more difficult to produce something that, in itself, is tastier than the standard batter that, to be honest, is mostly just a vehicle for a crispy, oily crust for your chicken, vegetables, or Mars bars—not something particularly flavorful in itself. Here is a super-simple recipe for beer batter into which you can dip anything you might care to fry.
Beer is a great component to breads, either sweeter or savory ones. Combine a bottle of beer (in this case, lager works well, because it replaces water as the liquid component) with the ingredients of bread. For example, if you add a bottle of beer to 3 cups of self-rising flour, a dash of salt, and 2 tablespoons of warmed butter, you’ll be all set to knead and bake a great loaf. You can add sugar, for a sweet bread, or chunks of chopped cheese, peeled garlic cloves, chopped and quickly-sauteed pancetta—anything that sounds good to you to jazz it up.
BEER MARINADES AND SAUCES
You can marinate meat in just about anything. If you can soak ribs in rum and Coke, then you can certainly soak them in beer. The key for marinades, braising, and sauces is that the beer you use has to be good, and has to have body and flavor to it. Light lagers might be refreshing on a hot day, but they impart little more flavor than water as an ingredient. The best beers to use are ales or stouts, darker more flavorful beers that will really add something to your dish. Try a beer marinade for meat, since the enzymes in it will help to break down the tough fibers in inexpensive cuts of meat, making them both more tender and more flavorful. Be creative in what you pair: an ale or stout should be accompanied by some dry rubs, herbs or spices. You can throw in some soy sauce, fish sauce or Hoisin if you want to give the dish an Asian angle. When marinating, for best effect let the meat soak in the liquid for at least four hours, preferably overnight in the fridge. To minimize mess, you can throw everything into a disposal ziplock plastic bag, which assures an even coating and nothing to clean the next day.
My personal favorite dish to cook with beer is a Flemish specialty. We often think of braising meat in wine, to create a flavorful stew. But braising is simply the slow cooking of meat and vegetables in a liquid, cooked “low and slow,” at around 150°C for at least three hours—the longer you cook it, provided you keep the ingredients moist, the more flavor is drawn out, and the better it tastes. The French taught us long ago to braise in red or white wine. Heck, you can even make Irish Stew braising in nothing but water, and it tastes great. So it seems obvious to try braising in beer, but for some reason I had never tried it. But on a recent visit to Ghent (here is a food guide to the city), I fell in love with stoverij, a stew made of meat braised in dark beer, with the added flavor component of thyme and Ghent’s famous Tierenteyn mustard, and with a few tricks thrown in, depending on whose recipe you use, including the addition of brown sugar, multiple beers, or even gingerbread cookies. The play of bitter, sweet, and the umami of the savory meat—it all adds up to my favorite stew, one that I regularly enjoy more than my concoctions that are slow-braised in the more-traditional wine. My friend Tom has kindly provided a basic, but wonderful, recipe for stoverij.