I love beer. I love food. Therefore, combining the two seems like a match made in heaven, right? There are two ways beer can have a great impact on food. The first is to pair beer with food. This can seem daunting at first, because it requires some research, but it isn’t too hard to find out about. Craftbeer.com has a simple to follow infographic that can get you started. For more information, I would recommend The Beer and Food Companion or What to Drink with What You Eat as reading materials.
What beer to use?
Today I’m talking about the second way to use beer with food, cooking with beer. I think beer has a great place in most soups, braises, batters, and sauces you can make. Simply put, if you need a liquid, beer is often a great candidate. The type of beer you use is quite important though. I generally recommend a non craft beer for cooking, at least early on. That doesn’t mean all craft beer will be bad, but when you cook, often you will reduce the amount of liquid, which means all flavors will be concentrated. While you might enjoy that IPA in a drinkable form, when you crank the bitterness up three times, it can easily overpower any food you might be having. This doesn’t mean a floral IPA would be bad in something like a lemon chicken soup, because there is plenty of soup to mix the flavor with. It mostly depends on what cooking method you use. For a beginner though, I would strongly recommend using a mild flavored beer like Budweiser to start with.
Now, what can beer do to a flavor? It can contribute all the flavors in the beer. Whether it is the malty sweetness, the caramelized flavors, the hop profile, all of it will be expressed in various ways. If you are making a pan sauce by deglazing a pan, a knob of butter and a beer that you reduce can give you a heavenly smooth savory sauce to coat your food in. The strength of the flavor simply depends on how much you reduce it. Additionally, if you want the beer flavor to be light, you an thicken the sauce with a roux (flour and butter) or cornstarch. If you are using it to provide flavor for a soup or curry, you can use a more full bodied beer, because the flavor will meld with many other things. It is all up to your imagination.
Why use beer?
When cooking, you often need to add water. Regardless of whether you are making a braising liquid, a marinade, a soup, or a pasta sauce, cooking will never be separated from water. I recommend almost never using just water for anything. Now of course, I’m not recommending you boil your pasta in salty beer, but for many applications, you can add a lot more flavor by using something that isn’t water. Soup stocks are a great option, and I recommend just about any cook to have a decent low sodium chicken or vegetable stock powder within arms reach. The low sodium is key, because you can always add more salt, but taking it out is impossible. Beer can fulfill the addition of flavor without adding much extra sodium (with the exception of gose styles, which often possesses a fairly salty profile). So, next time you need to add water to a soup or sauce, try reaching for the beer (or wine, or soup stock, or any other flavorful liquid you can think of) and give it a try. If you think the flavors might work together, it is likely that they will. Start off slow, and add more in batches. Don’t use more than half a beer at a time, that way you can drink the other half!
There are a lot of ways beer can kick up the flavor to another level. If you stay with safe beers, you will rarely go wrong. That being said, if you try more unique beers, you just may find something truly special. If you ever try a lemon butter pan sauce for fish using New Belgium Sunshine you will see just how much beer can kick up a flavor. Additionally, a nice stout gravy on a chicken fried steak is a common combination for a reason. Don’t be afraid to try more flavorful beers, but cut your teeth on something basic.
What kinds of beer do you like to cook with? Let me know in the comments.
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