People have cooked with wine for as long as they’ve been making it, but what about cooking with beer? Hugh Thomas gives us the lowdown.
A world of flavours to explore
As the French know best, humans have cooked with wine for as long as they’ve been making it. The same habits apply to beer, but on a much smaller scale. Why don’t we cook with beer more? It’s a mystery. Beer is more versatile thanks to the flavours you can get out of it (bitterness, sweetness, spiciness – even saltiness). Most of the time, it’s cheaper. And there are increasingly more quality brews on the market. Plus there’s the matter of putting it in your breakfast…
How to start… sub in a beer
You don’t have to be overly imaginative here if you don’t want to be; substitute stock in beef stew for a Belgian dubbel or brown ale. Or bake a loaf of bread with an English bitter or hoppy pale – the yeast and bubbles in the beer take care of proving and kneading, so you don’t have to.
You should also make sure you’re going to be able to ‘match the level of intensity between your beer and your food,’ says Melissa Cole, beer sommelier and author of upcoming book The Beer Kitchen. Generally speaking, lighter and lower ABV beers work better with delicate foods, like a saison does with crab. The same works in reverse. Think stouts and dark chocolate.
And then? ‘Get to know your beer,’ says Melissa. ‘You’ll be better set up to create great matches.’ Like wine, you should be cooking with something you actually want to drink. Unlike wine, thank goodness no one’s come up with a cooking beer. So it makes sense to start with what you already prefer. In many cases, that would be lager.
A little lager, a lot of depth
‘Lager is great to cook with,’ says Mark Dredge, beer writer and author of Beer And Food (you may have also seen him on Sunday Brunch). ‘It’s light in flavour, but can add nice depth to a dish. My favourite recipe is to use lager and lime juice to brine meat or vegetables, before grilling them to stuff into tacos. I also like adding some lager to pizza dough if you’re making your own – pizza and lager work well together and this brings them even closer together.’
Pales ales & curry: a match made in… India
Granted, not everyone is satisfied with a lager – or has to hand a good one. Pale ales, a style firmly rooted in British beer tradition, are perhaps more likely to be found on the floor of the home pantry. There are also some cultural and historical connotations when talking about how they fit with food. Take an India Pale Ale, for example, a beer style designed to quench the thirst of British expats living – and, erm, colonising – India. It just so happens its modern incarnation works particularly well with foods found in this part of the world.
‘A hoppy-spicy relationship will hold when a sauce is developed for something like a curry,’ writes Stephen Beaumont in his book The Beer & Food Companion. ‘Which can often benefit from a pale ale or IPA made with citrusy American hops. Since these hop flavours can help juice up the character of such sauces, however, it’s best to add them towards the end of the cooking, so the hop flavour stays fresh and the bitterness is not allowed to intensify.’
Mark, also, suggests one should be careful with hoppier beers – the best instances in which to use them being with fattier or sugary foods. ‘Pale ale works really well in a cheese sauce for mac ‘n’ cheese or rarebit. It’s another great beer in a brine, especially for chicken or pork. I also like pale ale in carrot or chocolate cake, especially if you add fresh orange peel or juice.’
For the sweet-toothed beer-lovers
Speaking of chocolate cake, and sweet things in general, certain beers add a whole new dimension to pudding and tea time. This is where home chefs reach for something a little darker or heavier. That can of Guinness left in the fridge? Stick it in brownie mixture. The rest of that porter? That’d go well in a Bundt cake. Mark even suggests saving the stronger stuff for an early morning. ‘Strong stout makes excellent breakfast pancakes,’ he says.
If in doubt… beer-butt chicken
Just goes to show – cooking with beer means a lot more than battering fish with a fizzy lager, or stirring a dark ale into a beef stew (but if you haven’t already, they’re a good place to start). If you’re still in doubt, though, you can always take a can, crack it open, and stick it up a chicken’s backside. ‘Just make sure you use a decent can,’ says Mark. Use the can as a base and then stand the chicken upright on its legs.
How to cook with beer: two full recipes to get you started
Mark Dredge’s Lager & Lime Chicken Tacos
For the lager & lime chicken
400g chicken thighs, skinned, de-boned, and diced
1 bottle of lager
juice of 3 limes
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons salt
12 coriander seeds
12 black peppercorns
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
4 chillies, roughly chopped
salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper (optional), 1 whole lime (halved)
For the lager tacos
250g masa harina flour
a pinch of salt
For the salsa
2 ripe avocados, peeled and stoned
2 tablespoons lager
2 teaspoons salt
juice of ½ a lime
1 green chilli, finely diced
50g goats’ cheese
To make the lager and lime chicken
In a large, sealable plastic container, mix the lager, water, and lime juice to make a brine. Add the sugar and salt, stirring until everything is combined, then add the rest of the ingredients. Place the chicken in the brine, put the lid on the container, and keep in the fridge for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 220ºC. Remove the thighs from the brine and pat them dry with a paper towel. Add extra seasoning and some cayenne pepper if you like your tacos hot. Place the thighs on a baking tray, along with the lime halves so that they caramelise, and cook for approximately 30 minutes. You can also cook the thighs on a barbecue.
To make the tacos
Mix the masa harina flour and salt in a bowl. Add the lager and mix into a smooth dough with a clay-like consistency. Leave to rest for 15 minutes and knead again. Divide the dough into small balls (you should get 10-12). Flatten the balls of dough until they are about 3mm thick. A rolling pin works fine for this unless you have a tortilla press. Cook the tacos in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat for about 30 seconds on each side. Place in a warm oven until needed.
To make the salsa
Chop the avocado into 1cm cubes. In a small bowl, mix the avocado with the sweetcorn, lager, salt, lime, and chilli, and place in the fridge until ready. To serve, place a chicken thigh in a soft taco, top up with some avocado salsa, and add some goats cheese and a few leaves of fresh coriander.
Melissa Cole’s Orange Beer Ice Cream
Makes 1.5 litres
5 egg yolks
140g caster sugar or invertase (whichever is cheaper!)
400ml full-fat milk (preferably Jersey, which has extra fat content that will make up for the beer not having any)
75 ml Belgian-style wheat beer
300ml double cream
zest of 2 oranges (preferably blood orange, if in season)
4 tablespoons orange juice (partially frozen)
Whisk together the yolks and sugar in a bowl until they’re properly amalgamated and very pale. Gently heat the milk, beer and cream in a saucepan until it starts to bubble. Gradually whisk into the egg yolk mixture. Do not stop whisking or you’ll get lumps! Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and heat really gently. Stir until thickened (I find one of those silicone spatulas is best for this). DO NOT STOP STIRRING.
When you can draw a firm line in the mixture using the back of the spatula you are done. Stir in the orange zest and partially frozen orange juice, whisk briskly, leave to cool to room temperature, then place in the fridge to get very cold.
When cold and firm, pass the ice cream through a fine sieve, in case you scrambled some egg. Churn in an ice-cream maker until set. Store in an airtight container and keep in the freezer until ready to serve. Allow to defrost for a few minutes before scooping!