November 3, 2011

Homebrew and Cooking

I've been somewhat neglectful in making regular posts here, as I've said before, thanks to my very busy schedule this semester. Unfortunately that also means I haven't been brewing very much, either. Recently I did make a vienna/rye blond using the last of the pound of fuggles hops I bought in 2010 and the beginning of a pound of Goldings I just bought last month. I will hold off on posting the recipe until I have a chance to taste it and see if it is worth admitting to creating it.

So I want to approach a slightly different subject about homebrew -- using it in your food. Now of course, you can also cook with commercially purchased beer but if you're like me, you have more homebrew hanging around than commercial beer. It's also a good way to move through a batch of homebrew if you've made five gallons but you're getting tired of drinking it. It's also a good way to use a batch that didn't come out perfectly. I don't mean the nasty, infected batch of ESB will make great food but a beer that's under-hopped for your taste or too roasty or whatever can have a better life in your food than being drunk as that disappointing batch.

There's a lot of information about cooking with beer and I think the best sources of recipes will be brewery websites (Left Hand, for example has excellent recipes on its website) and beer magazines, such as Draft or All About Beer because they tend to be vetted recipes by people who know beer. There are also plenty of blogs dedicated to cooking with beer that are worth browsing. You will typically get recipes that list a particular beer or two as the right beer for a recipe. You can usually substitute a similar homebrew and get a tasty dish. If you look other places on the internet, you may get recipes that disappoint. The reason is that many recipe sites refer to beer generically (so you would only want to use light, yellow beer like an American Pilsner or a Kolsch) or in unclear terms (like "dark ale") that could mean anything. I have found some knock outs, like this London Broil Braised in Stout that was delicious with my Left Hand milk stout clone. However I have also found some terrible recipes that I had to save by completely changing the recipe midway through cooking. (I found a porter-based BBQ sauce recipe that tasted like a funky, too spicy chinese marinade. It took a lot of additions to make it less Asian and worth consuming. I'll spare you the link to that one.)

You don't need a fancy recipe to use your beer in food. You can make simple dishes with the addition of beer that will spice up your food. A couple of things to consider. First, adding beer to food will add calories, so be mindful that each 12oz bottle is adding about 150-300 calories (or more, depending on the beer) so if you're trying to eat healthy you probably want to go easy on the beer. Second, when you cook down or reduce beer, like anything else you concentrate the flavor (because you are boiling out the water). So a moderately hoppy beer will get more hoppy -- in bitterness -- and a malty beer will get more malt -- in sweetness.

Rather than give you some specific recipes (I don't have many to offer), I'll give you some ideas to experiment with. One thing that helps make food interesting without having to spend a fortune or hours in the kitchen is to add flavor ingredients to normal foods or processes. For example, you can take a bottle of BBQ sauce from the store and simmer it with a bottle of beer to infuse some flavor of the beer into the sauce. This might work well with a porter or stout, but could also work with a brown ale, pale ale, etc. You can also add beer to stew, soup, chili, etc. Rice can also be cooked in a combination of beer and water, although I would probably go with something crisp or moderately hoppy so the rice doesn't get too sweet. A blend of olive oil and IPA could make an interesting salad dressing or base for a pasta dish.

If you are prone to cooking from scratch, you can also add beer into many recipes. It can work as a substitute for honey, sugar, molasses as long as you use a malty beer. You may have to reduce it first so it doesn't make the recipe too watery. You can add it into sauces, whether it is a marinade or BBQ sauce, a tomato sauce, or really anything else that might need a little kick. Again, just be mindful that you're not making the dish too runny or watery. For marinades you can typically just add the beer directly to the marinade and then add the meat. If you are making a BBQ-style sauce I find the beer can be added and a little water substituted out to keep from having to boil out excess liquid. If you are a fan of using a slow cooker/crock pot, beer can be added for an extra flavor component. Don't limit yourself to typical styles though. Beer can also be used as a substitute for water in bread products, adding interesting flavor. It can go into bread, cornbread, waffle batter (especially a good Belgian beer), cookies, brownies, cakes, muffins and so on.

When you're experimenting with recipes I find it's most helpful to add a small amount of whatever you're adding -- in this case beer -- mix well and then taste to see if you like it and if it needs more or if it will need other ingredients paired with it to balance the sweet/sour/bitter/etc. flavors brought out by the beer. You can always add more beer but it's hard to cover it up when you add too much. Another important consideration is when in the process you add the beer. When you are cooking -- when you're using heat -- time is important. The longer the beer cooks several things happen: the flavors will meld better, the beer flavors will concentrate (especially hoppy bitterness), and if you're applying a lot of heat, the sugars may start to caramelize. You can always start off by adding beer at the end of the cooking process to see how it tastes and try making the recipe a second time by adding the beer earlier and decide which you prefer. Typically when you make something more liquidy, such as a marinade or stew you're safer adding the beer early in cooking because there's so much liquid that it won't concentrate the beer as much. However in something thicker, where the liquid has been cooked out, or a small amount is made to provide a light coating, there is a greater chance of concentration and timing will be important.

Anyway, I hope that is useful on some level. As I discover/create new food recipes I'll try to write them down and add them along with the homebrew recipes.

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