It’s one thing to pair beer with food, especially for holidays or events where you’ll probably be serving or drinking a lot of it — but beer is also pretty fun to cook with. (After all, we do it with wine all the time.) You can add beer to almost anything, from chili to shrimp boils, bread and cakes to queso. More than just a novelty ingredient, beer adds an extra dimension and depth to a dish, lending notes ranging from roasted barley to sweet fruit, chocolate to crisp acidity.
“Craft beers have a lot of personality, but there’s a lot you can do with regular commercial brews too,” says Jerry Su, chef at Eagle Rock Brewery Public House, the brewpub outlet for one of Los Angeles’ most popular craft breweries. In fact, for a lot of cooking, commercial brews are ideal, simply because the price point is better than for more limited craft offerings. “Coors is a natural for a shrimp boil. With commercial beers, you can also trust that the flavor is consistent. You know what you’re getting.”
First, consider the type of beer you want to use and what style would best complement a dish. Wheat beers — often called “white,” “wit” or “weiss” — tend to be a little mellower, with crisp, fruity notes that can pair well with everything from fish to grilled red meats.
Su uses Eagle Rock Brewery’s Manifesto beer in a light batter for the brewpub’s deep-fried cod sandwich, topped with a pickled jalapeno slaw and tangy malt vinegar aioli. The Belgian-style wheat beer is not too terribly hoppy or bitter, perfect with fish. “It’s mild,” says Su, “and lends great flavor.”
Other beers run the gamut from fruity and sharp to yeasty and malty. Take a complex stout beer — rich and dark, this beer is thick and creamy, redolent with molasses, coffee and roasted barley notes. The flavors are naturally suited to grilled meats, hearty stews and rich desserts.
Depending on how the beer is used in a recipe, the flavors can change as you cook with them. Add beer toward the end of a recipe, and the notes will largely remain true to the beer’s original character. But try cooking — particularly heating and reducing beer — and the flavors will concentrate and even evolve over time. For stout and mustard chicken wings, complement a robust stout reduction with whole grain mustard and chopped garlic, along with minced thyme. A little honey and malt vinegar will offset the bitterness of the reduced beer, and grated parmesan and soy sauce will add a touch of umami to your glaze.
“The key is using your palate and working with the harmony of flavors,” says Su. “Try a small amount (of beer) before adding it to a recipe.”
Keep in mind that as the beer is cooked, most, if not all, of the alcohol will burn off. And unlike wine, the carbonation in the beer can make it a valuable ingredient for certain types of dishes, particularly when it comes to deep-frying.
“Beer batter is something that’s super common,” says Su. Whisked into a simple batter consisting of nothing more than flour, salt and a touch of baking powder, a beer batter puffs up light and crisp. It’s a classic batter for deep-fried fish.
For a slightly different take, use it to batter mac-and-cheese bites, incorporating a sharp, bitter IPA to stand up to the richness of a cheddar- and smoked-gouda-based sauce.
Experiment a bit and you might find yourself cooking with beer frequently and using it in a variety of dishes. Still, always be sure to keep extra on hand — you know, for when you actually want to drink it.
Stout and Mustard Beer Wings
2 (12-ounce) stout beers
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
1/2 cup whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons minced garlic (6 to 8 large cloves)
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons malt vinegar
1 teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste
1 1/4 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
Freshly ground pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
4 pounds trimmed chicken wings, cut at the joints and wing tips discarded (about 3 dozen pieces)
2 to 3 cups cornstarch, for dredging
Place the beer in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Gently simmer the beer until it is reduced to 2/3 cup, about 15 minutes (watch that the beer does not foam over the top of the pan while it is simmering). Remove from heat. Whisk the butter in with the beer, then the mustard, thyme, garlic and cheese. Whisk in the honey and malt vinegar, followed by the hot sauce, soy sauce and several grinds of pepper. Taste and adjust the flavorings if desired. Place the sauce in a large bowl and set aside.
Fill a 4-quart pot with frying oil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to maintain a temperature of 350 degrees. While the oil is heating, dredge each wing in cornstarch, tossing to coat the wing completely. Shake off the excess cornstarch and set aside. For a crunchier texture, dredge the wings a second time just before frying. When the oil is heated, begin frying the wings, several pieces at a time. Fry the wings until the skin is golden and crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain the wings on a rack and continue frying.
While the wings are still hot, toss them in the large bowl with the sauce until completely coated. Remove the wings, shaking off the excess sauce, and serve immediately.
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Beer-Battered Mac and Cheese Bites
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound small elbow macaroni
1/2 pound bacon, cut crosswise into thin strips
2 to 4 tablespoons butter, or as needed
3 1/2 cups flour, divided
1 1/2 cups half and half
4 1/2 cups IPA beer, divided
3/4 pound smoked gouda, grated
3/4 pound sharp cheddar, grated
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup chopped chives
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese
3 cups cornstarch
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and add the vegetable oil, then the macaroni. Cook the macaroni according to the manufacturer’s instructions to al dente, then drain. Spread the macaroni out on a rimmed baking sheet to cool slightly while you make the sauce.
In a medium, heavy pot, render the bacon until crisp, stirring frequently, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon, leaving the fat in the pot. Drain the bacon on paper towels. Measure the bacon fat in the pot. You will need 1/2 cup. If short, add butter as needed to have a total of 1/2 cup fat.
Heat the fat in the pot over medium heat and slowly whisk in 1/2 cup flour to create a roux. Cook the roux for 2 to 3 minutes until it is lightly colored, then begin to whisk in the half and half and 1 1/2 cups beer. Continue cooking, stirring frequently until the sauce begins to bubble and is thickened. Stir or whisk in the grated cheeses until melted and incorporated, then stir in the bacon. Stir in the macaroni.
Spoon the macaroni and cheese into a greased 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish. Place the dish in the oven and bake until the sauce begins to bubble on the sides and the top is faintly golden, about 15 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack to room temperature, then cover and place the baking dish in the refrigerator until the macaroni and cheese is chilled and completely firm, preferably overnight.
Fill a 4-quart pot with frying oil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to maintain a temperature of 350 degrees. Make the beer batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 cups beer with the 3 cups flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and the baking powder. Whisk in the chives and Parmesan cheese and set aside. Remove the macaroni and cheese from the refrigerator. Cut the macaroni and cheese into 1-inch squares.
Working with a few squares at a time, toss the bites into cornstarch to coat, then gently roll them in the beer batter to coat completely. Shake off the excess batter and carefully dip the bites into the hot oil. Fry the macaroni and cheese bites until the batter is puffed and lightly golden and the batter is crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain the bites on a rack, and continue frying. Serve the bites hot.
Yield: About 8 dozen bites
Fried Cod Sandwich
Adapted from a recipe by chef Jerry Su of Eagle Rock Public House.
Peanut or canola oil for deep-frying
1 1/2 cups flour, plus 1 cup for dusting, divided
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pint Belgian-style witbier or white ale
3 dashes Tabasco
6 (5-ounce) cod fillets, preferably Ling cod
Malt vinegar aioli (see recipe)
Pickled jalapeño slaw (see recipe)
Toasted challah roll
Fill a 4-quart pot with frying oil to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. Heat the oil to maintain a temperature of 350 degrees. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together 1 1/2 cups flour with the baking powder and kosher salt. Whisk in the beer until the batter is smooth, then whisk in the Tabasco. Set aside.
Dredge the cod pieces in the remaining flour, then remove the cod and dip each piece into the batter. Carefully lower each piece into the oil and fry until golden and crispy, about 4 minutes (frying time will vary depending on the thickness of the pieces). Drain on a rack.
Assemble the sandwiches: Spread 1 to 2 tablespoons aioli on each half of the toasted rolls. Top the bottom half of each roll with a piece of fried fish, and top the fish with about 1 cup of loosely packed slaw. Top each sandwich with the remaining roll and serve immediately.
To make malt vinegar aioli: In a food processor, combine 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, 3 cloves garlic and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Blend until homogenous, then slowly stream in 1 to 1 1/2 cups canola oil and continue to blend until the mayonnaise is thick and forms peaks. Stir in 1/4 cup malt vinegar. Makes 1 cup.
To make pickled jalapeño slaw: Mix together 1/2 head julienned green cabbage, 1 julienned red onion and 1 cup strained pickled jalapeños in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup pickling juice (from the jalapeños) with 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Pour over slaw and season with a few pinches of salt. Mix well and set aside at least 10 minutes before using. Makes 6 to 8 cups.
Yield: 6 sandwiches