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Brewers Feast

Brewers Feast

Adding beer to a recipe can add complexity to a variety of dishes, but not every beer works with every recipe.

Spill my beer into a pan

One of the most common ways chefs use beer on a menu is part of a steamed mussels dish or a basic beer can chicken. But don’t you want to get more creative? Cooking with beer can be surprisingly diverse and lends delicious flavor to numerous dishes.

“I have found that beer can have many uses and provide a host of flavors to an ingredient or overall dish,” said chef Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville. Bolus said you need to drink the beer before you think about adding it to a dish. “Avoid anything you won’t drink,” he said. “If you don’t like the flavor before cooking, it won’t taste better after.”

One reason for that is the flavor of beer will intensify as it reduces and sometimes the flavor profile will change altogether. “Beer takes on new characteristics,” said chef Shane Graybeal of Chicago’s Bin 36. “Sometimes it gets bitter or sweeter. As you add heat or mix it with other tastes, it’s going to change.”

Graybeal said over the 20 years he’s worked in kitchens he’s been known to “spill my beer into a pan” and that has led to some experimentation. A dish he added to the menu this past summer was a play on a traditional crudité, which he constructed to look like a flower pot. He makes the rye “soil” for the base with rye flour, cocoa powder, hazelnut flour and Buffalo Sweat oatmeal cream stout. “The dark, heavy porter-style beer is right at home with all those ingredients,” he said. “It lends a coffee taste.” He added that using a different style of beer, like an IPA, would offer a different result and change the dish’s flavor profile.

Like Graybeal, 404’s Bolus experiments when using beer and, like his menus, changes the type of beer he cooks with seasonally. “The beer I use depends on what I am cooking and what I want the end result to be,” he said. “In the winter I may be more stout-heavy with beef or pork to make a heartwarming, soul-satisfying dish, but in the summer I am looking for bright, crisp, clean flavors like you might find in a gose.” A gose is an old, German-style unfiltered wheat beer that is refreshingly crisp. Bolus also likes using pilsners in summer, like Nashville’s Jackalope Brewery Seven Cities Pilsner he used in a braised rabbit dish. The beer offered citrus, hay and fresh cut grass notes that blended well with the mustard, king trumpet mushrooms and Italian dandelion greens in the dish.

Nathan Sears, chef partner at Chicago German beer hall The Radler, includes beer in numerous recipes ranging from sausages to fish to vinaigrettes. He uses a black lager to craft a four-month-aged vinegar; adds a kolsch barley to a fried perch dish; and turned a barley wine into a glaze that accompanied a slow-roasted pork shoulder with whole wheat spaetzle and lima beans. While it seems like all these dishes work, Sears has had his stumbles, but doesn’t let that derail him. “I can’t think of a dish that has failed, it just sent me back to the drawing board,” he said. “Something may not have been the right beer flavor profile or [I realized] a reduced application would be better.”

With all the ways you can use beer, chefs do caution not everything works, even if you love a beer’s flavor when you drink it. “Be careful of really hoppy beers,” said Dennis Marron, executive chef of Pittsburgh’s The Commoner. “They are tricky to work with. The more hoppy beers also become really bitter if cooked too long.” He added that some beers can become salty when cooked and reduced, and advised to taste a dish before adding more salt. Chef Graybeal also said that since most beers have lower alcohol, you don’t need to cook it too long or bring it to a full boil. “That’s when you start losing a lot of the subtle flavors and the bitterness and harness comes out.”

So however you want to cook with beer, don’t overthink it and be sure to test things out. And no matter what you do, save some for yourself to toast your delicious new dish.

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