Any experienced cook will undoubtedly have come across recipes that call for alcohol. Some call for Burgundy, others for Claret, others for Sauvignon Blanc or dessert wine.
Then there are the ones that call for “beer.” Not a particular type of beer, just “beer.”
Beer? Which beer? Dense and rich Sweet Stout, delicate Helles, fruity Weissebier, potent Barleywine? Sometimes it seems the world is run by narrow-minded tyrants who can’t acknowledge any experience outwith their own. (We left-handers know all about that.)
Whilst wine is presumed to have an endless spectrum of flavours, beer, on the other hand, is assumed by most people to have a single profile (yellow, fizzy and slightly bitter), and therefore is free from the burden of complimenting or contributing to gastronomy in any way. This is clearly an idea implanted by wine lovers and re-enforced by the sameness of the bland lagers that account for most beer sales and advertising revenue in the UK. The food world’s dirty little secret is, that there is a far wider range of flavours among the family of beer than among the family of wine. As a result, beer is also very versatile in the kitchen.
Like fashion, gems and show dogs, wine is a game of nuance. Subtle shifts in terrain, sunshine, rainfall, humidity and harvesting can expose or obscure a tiny facet of flavour that could mean the difference between the winemaker spending six months on his yacht off the Cayman Islands or, say, seven months. It is the perception and subsequent reporting of these microscopic differences between plonk and Petrus that gives wine an aura of sophistication and exclusivity here in the UK, much to the amusement of those in most wine-producing countries.
For example, a bottle of wine can sell for £500 at the flick of Robert Parker’s pen (E.Guigal Côte Rôti La Landonne 2003). For a bottle of beer to fetch £500, however, it needs to come wrapped in a dead squirrel (Brew Dog The End of History). What does that tell you about wine and beer in the UK?
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen . . . Despite common thinking on the topic, different-tasting beers will influence recipes in different ways. From bone-dry and tart Berliner Weisse to smooth & sugary Sweetheart Stout, a well-chosen beer can make your food absolutely shine.
Let’s start with the basics. The family of beer has nearly an infinite variety of a few basic flavours: sweet malt, bitter hop and roasted grain. In addition, beer comes in different colours, and sometimes contains fruits, ranging from cherry to banana to coconut; or seasonings such as coriander, bog myrtle, roasted chicory and coffee.
Here are five hints for cooking with beer:
1) Hops are bitter. Bitterness isn’t always pleasing in cooking. And if you reduce a dish with beer in it, the bitterness will be even sharper. A very hoppy beer like a high-alcohol IPA or a Czech lager is fine at the table but disastrous in the kitchen, unless used in a high-acid dish like sauerkeraut or ceviche. (Acid tends to reduce bitterness.)
2) Dark beer makes your food dark. Bad choice for frying batter — which appears overcooked even when it’s not – or cream soups, which end up looking like mud (or worse). On the other hand, a dark beer can add a luxurious depth of colour to your dish, and an extra-malty one like sweet stout can help a reduced sauce achieve a silky sheen.
3) Like for like. Aside from the alpha acid rates of hops (which are different to other acids in beer), there is not a great range of acidity among different beers. Not so with wine. If you are looking to substitute beer for wine in a recipe, remember that white wine is more acidic than red wine (both are more acidic than beer), and will take a greater volume of beer as a substitute. However, since more beer can mean more bitterness, you may have to sneak in a little little vinegar or citrus juice to compensate.
4) Make yeast work for you. Bottle-conditioned beers have live yeast in them, which can help make a lighter frying batter if left overnight to ferment. Don’t worry about hop bitterness – it won’t come out in the batter, and will probably be drowned out by waves of vinegar or tartar sauce at the table, anyway.
5) Kill two birds with one stone. Does your recipe call for fruit or fruit syrup? Try a Belgian fruit beer. Avoid British fruit beers, since they generally are not sweet enough and always too bitter (When brewing fruit beers, Belgian brewers use aged hops which have lost their bitterness over time). There’s no threat of pectinisation, as with fresh fruit, but you may need to increase cooking time to get desired thickness. To give a tropical punch to chutney, for example, try some banana beer.
Great cooks aren’t afraid to experiment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t culinary and chemical rules to be considered. Remember that the perfect match between beer and food in the kitchen is not necessarily going to be the perfect match at the table. We’ll get to that another time.
Why, when it comes to pairing food with drink, are there suddenly a thousand “rights and wrongs” in the wine world, yet beer is just, well, beer?
It would appear from the wine press that the infinitesimal difference between wine produced by the same grapes in the same year but from neighboring parcels of land would be enough to make or break one’s dining experience and possibly cause irreversible emotional trauma; but to make the same claim for different styles of beer is considered ridiculous.
Jim Anderson in co-owner of The Anders in Fortrose, and always uses wheat beer to steam mussels.