From the fizz in a batter to that tang in bread and unctuousness in ice cream, cooking with beer can elevate a dish from good to great to truly special.
“Beer is a versatile ingredient and can be used in marinades for meats, seafood, sauces, and even desserts,” says Michele Ragussis, executive chef of The Pearl in Rockland, Maine, and a finalist on Food Network Star. “The quality ingredients in craft beer can provide a built-in ‘spice packet’ that infuses dishes with exciting flavors.”
Still, cooking with beer is a lot different than pairing beer with cooked foods. Far from cut and dry, different rules apply.
“Beer tends to get more bitter the longer it cooks,” says Lucy Saunders, culinary and craft beer consultant, instructor at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, and author of The Best American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer. “When you look at beer as an ingredient, you have to keep in mind that the brewers designed it to be drunk not boiled.”
Unlike wine, the complex chemistry of beer—with its differing levels of hops, malt, yeast, and other flavor builders—becomes even more complex when cooked. While pairing beer for sipping holds no bounds, cooking can introduce new, unforeseen flavors. That said, there are some basic philosophies when making these choices.
Sautés and Sauces
Saunders says one of the most important tricks when cooking with beer is adding it in the final stages to preserve the fresh taste and prevent bitterness.
When deglazing a pan with beer, Saunders suggests adding just a touch of beer and bringing the liquid to a simmer, not a rolling boil. To flambé a dish just before service can also add flavor without bitterness.
Additionally, beer works great as a base for brines or pickling liquids. Saunders has made a quick kimchi on the fly with an IPA and chili flakes to add a tangy, yeasty flavor to the vegetables as they ferment.
Still, bitterness can take hold. “You have to be aware that when you’re prepping large volumes and holding the mixture for longer than 24 hours, the flavor will become more bitter over time,” says Saunders, who is currently at work on a textbook covering cooking with craft beer.
Unlike the “red with meat, white with fish” rule of thumb for wine, when selecting beers for cooking go by the presence of hops and yeast, not color, Saunders says. “It’s easy to think that a dark beer will be caramel-flavored and sweet, but that’s not always the case,” Saunders says. “Black ales, barley wine, and beers with a higher hop ratio can be more bitter.”
That said, hoppy—aka: more bitter—beers do best when they are cooked less or not at all, as in salad dressings and marinades. But the less bubbly the beer the better for these noncooked sauces, says Jason Richardson, chef de cuisine of The Green Well, a gastropub in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who opts for smoother stouts that don’t have to be reduced before going into dressings. Honey and maple syrup also help to bring out the beer’s natural sweetness.
Chef Brian Arnest of the Portland Brewing Company looks at the International Bittering Unit (ibu) as a way of measuring hops and potential bitterness of the beer when cooked. Most craft breweries have this information posted on their spec sheets, or occasionally on the bottles themselves.
Arnest also studies alcohol content when pairing beer for cooking. “Higher-alcohol beers tend to have more ingredients in them and a lot of malt, which makes them more flavorful generally,” says Arnest, who uses higher-alcohol Belgian beers in creamier, heavy dishes like shrimp and grits, and those with rich gravies.
When making barbecue sauces, Arnest reaches for a hoppy IPA to cut through the sweet richness. He’ll use a hoppy, higher-alcohol amber to stand up against a spicier sauce. Arnest also uses beer when cooking the meat itself, adding it to a smoker pan in place of plain water to gently infuse new flavors. Hefeweizen, or other slightly sweet, lighter-alcohol wheat beers, make for great marinades and cooking liquid for beef or rotisserie-style chicken, and they pair well with fish, he adds.
“Lagers are a great ingredient to use with steaks, spareribs, and marinades—whereas wheat beers are great to cook with seafood such as fish, lobster, and clams,” says Ragussis. “But don’t limit yourself to these options. Because beer has a complex flavor profile, more so than wine, it can be used in a wide range of recipes.”
Eddie Johnson of Publik Draft House in Atlanta prefers amber beers for sautés using sausages, such as bangers and mash. The “spiciness” of an amber bonds with the fat in the forcemeat, bringing out additional complex flavors while cutting through some of the richness.
Soups and Stews
Beer brings out complexity to slow-simmered dishes as a step above simple stock. Hops in particular tend to enhance the chocolate taste of chilies and moles, while ambers lend certain nutty notes. Pale or golden ales easily lighten beer-based soups.
As with sautés, however, when making soups and stews, beer should also be added later in the braising and simmering process to prevent bitterness, says Saunders. Adding root vegetables and other alternative sweeteners like honey and molasses can also help reduce bitter backlash. Spirits can have the same effect. Richardson of The Green Well likes to use less bitter, sweeter stouts when braising meats like pork hocks for this reason.
Says Saunders: “If I am making a large batch of stew and I want to add some beer for flavor, I might make a big quantity of onions braised in my beer of choice, and then add those beer onions to the stew base closer to the end of the cooking process.”
For a classic beer cheese soup, Saunders uses a similar method, cooking a purée of onion and carrots with beer, and adding that to the warmed cheese soup base. Arnest adds the beer “right before you hit the soup with the roux.”
Tasting the cheese first also makes a difference, says Johnson of Publik Draft House. “The richer the cheese, the richer or higher-alcohol the beer should be to stand up to the flavors,” he says.
Baking, Batters and Desserts
“Beer helps bring extra carbonation, frothiness, and flavor to batters and quick breads,” says Saunders, who reaches for Belgian ales packed with yeast when baking.
When baking breads, Arnest goes for a maltier, less-bitter beer with more yeast flavor. He’ll use a wheat beer to add lightness and carbonation to a pizza dough.
Brownies and other chocolate-based desserts pair well with rich, sweeter stouts and porters. “Traditionally, sweet desserts pair well with less-bitter beers like stouts, but I’ve been pairing some desserts with IPAs to cut through some of that extra sweetness,” he says, noting the success of a recent banana caramel cheesecake with Pyramid Brewing Company’s Thunderhead IPA.
Cooking with beer has its bitter boundaries, sure. But when it comes to building flavor with bubbly ales, choosing carefully, tasting before, during, and after, and welcoming some good old-fashioned trial and error remain the name of the game.