I’m a home brewer and advocate for good beer, which means there’s little doubt what you’ll find in my glass around 6 o’clock. Since I’m also usually starting dinner at that time, it makes sense to share a little with the pan, too. To put my own spin on Julia Child’s famous quip, I love cooking with beer, and sometimes I even put it in food.
Beer is remarkably complex for something made with only four ingredients: malted grains (which are soaked in water so they germinate, then dried to halt germination), hops, yeast, and water. Malted grains like barley, wheat, and rye give beer its sweeter flavors, like those of toasted bread and dark caramel. Hops, the green flowers of an herbaceous plant, balance this sweetness with some bitterness, much the way herbs balance out a stew. Yeast can leave a beer tasting crisp and clean or spicy and fruity, depending on the type. Even the water used for brewing plays a part in the final flavor.
Different brews run the gamut from light and citrusy, to full of toasty malt flavors, to bitterly hoppy, to dark and chocolatey. This is true whether you’re drinking them or cooking with them.
Beers with complex flavors, like India pale ales (better known as IPAs) and porters add instant depth to simple dishes, while more straightforward beers like mild English ales add maltiness or yeastiness to complement more complex dishes. Others, like malty amber ales, are good with almost anything.
The point at which you add the beer also affects flavor. For example, a splash of hoppy beer can brighten a rich dish just before serving, but becomes more bitter as it’s cooked. That bitter edge might be desirable in a rich dish, so sometimes a hoppy beer is a great addition to a braise. Light, mild beers, on the other hand, might lose their flavor altogether if cooked for a long time, but can act as the acid in a dish if added later.
If this sounds like a lot to keep track of, don’t worry. The four recipes below feature different beers; think of them as a starting point for your own experiments. And if you’re wondering what to drink with each dish, that’s easy: the same beer you cooked with. So grab a bottle opener and get cooking with beer.
THE BEER: American pale ale or India pale ale, such as Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues and Grand Am American Pale Ale from Bear Republic Brewing Co.
THE FLAVORS: Bitter, citrusy, and a bit herbaceous
GOOD IN: SIMPLE BRAISES
American pale ales and IPAs have become synonymous with bitter hops, but that’s not all they have to offer. The same hop flowers responsible for bitterness also infuse these beers with a whole range of flavors and aromas from fresh orange juice to woodsy pine to crushed garden herbs. As a group, these beers are bright and bracing, best used to cut the richness of meat dishes or to perk up vinaigrettes. Stick with less hoppy brews ( just ask a salesperson at a store with a large beer selection) if you’re adding more than a few tablespoons; in larger amounts, the mega-hopped IPAs and double IPAs can become overwhelmingly bitter when cooked.
PICTURED: Pale Ale Pulled-Chicken Sliders
THE BEER: Porter or smoked porter, such as Founder’s Porter from Founder’s Brewing Co. and Alaskan Smoked Porter by Alaskan Brewing Co.
THE FLAVORS: Dark and roasty
GOOD IN: RICH DISHES
These dark brown beers are typified by rich flavors like roasted coffee beans, dark chocolate, and burnt sugar (a good thing—think caramel). They walk the line between sweet and savory, and as such, they can swing either way in the kitchen, going from chocolate cake to beefy chili with ease. These are beers with personality. They tend to take center stage, so don’t cook them with your fanciest cheeses, chocolates, or meats, because the flavors of those ingredients may get lost. Again, steer clear of highly hopped varieties.
PICTURED: Porter Bacon Mac & Cheese
THE BEER: Belgian-style saison, tripel, or witbier, such as Red Barn Ale from The Lost Abbey and Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale from Boulevard Brewing Co.
THE FLAVORS: Fruity and spicy
GOOD IN: SWEETS
Think of these as your bottled baking pantry. Yes, baking! Lightly hopped and made with Belgian strains of yeast that add fruity notes, bitterness isn’t a concern with these beers. They range from fruity and slightly sweet (tripels, which have added sugars) to crisp and citrusy (witbiers, which have some unmalted yeast in them) to crisp and spicy (saisons); they lend themselves to everything from a batch of waffles to apple pie. Try to match the flavors on the label with the flavors in your recipe.
PICTURED: Lemon–Cardamom Cookies with Saison Glaze
THE BEER: American amber or brown ale, such as Honker’s Ale from Goose Island and Drake’s Amber Ale from Drake’s Brewing Company
THE FLAVORS: Nutty, toasty, and clean-finishing
GOOD IN: JUST ABOUT ANYTHING
These are the workhorses of a beer lover’s kitchen. You can count on them for well-balanced nutty and toasted malt flavors without being overly sweet or heavy. This makes them good all-purpose beers—the kind you can throw into a braise, stew, or simple pot of beans without too much thought. In longer-cooked dishes, their flavors will become less distinct, and they’ll add a little extra something. They’re also mild enough to use in quick-cooked dishes without overpowering the other flavors. Avoid American styles described as “hoppy,” which can make food taste bitter.