Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On "Cooking with Beer"

Food and beer (or food with beer) has been getting a lot of press lately, and last week's SAVOR event help to push the topic to the front pages. I talk to a lot of people about the topic and I've found that to most people beer and food translates to "cooking with beer." And that often brings mention of a favorite recipe, usually along the lines of beer bread. What does "cooking with beer" really mean to beer aficionados?

There are quite a few "cooking with beer" books on the shelves, and it seems like more come out each week. There's quite a range of approaches taken by the authors. Sometimes the approach taken is very simple. Often we'll see recipes that call for "12 ounces beer" or "2 tablespoons beer". That's pretty generic if you ask me. Certainly in some circumstances this might be sufficient, but readers of this blog are surely aware of the wide variety of flavors available to the beer drinker. Calling simply for "beer" in a recipe is a bit like saying "2 tablespoons spice."

Other times recipes are more specific and then "cooking with beer" takes a more formal approach. For example, in "Grilling with Beer" author Lucy Saunders offers suggestions such as "12 ounces American IPA or hoppy pale ale" in a recipe for Hops and Herbs Chopped Chicken Sandwiches (page 132.) One can imagine how differently the grilled chicken might taste if the recipe had called for "12 ounces beer" and the reader selected a light American lager instead. Beer, unless one is dealing with one of the flavorless big factory beers, imparts noticeable and specific flavors to the food being prepared, and the flavor of the finished dish could vary quite a bit if the chef was left to choose simply a "beer".

Another interpretation of "cooking with beer", and one that has my interest especially, is where the beer isn't used solely in the preparation of the dish, but as an accompaniment to the meal. This is the approach taken, for example, by Garrett Oliver in "A Brewmaster's Table". In this book the author goes into great detail on various foods to pair with each of the many styles of beers discussed. He gives both style suggestions and the reasons behind the pairings. The Best of American Beer & Food by Lucy Saunders, also takes the pairing approach to "cooking with beer." It may surprise some readers that many recipes in her book do not call for beer at all in their preparation. However, the author makes excellent beer serving suggestions for every recipe. (In my opinion "The Bremaster's Table" and "The Best of American Beer & Food" are both major influences in exposing people to the pleasures of pairing beer and food in order to enhance the enjoyment of both. Both books are highly recommended.)

And finally, let's not forget the most enjoyable interpretation of "cooking with beer." That's when the cook cracks open a nice beer and drinks it while cooking! Enjoying a nice craft beer while preparing the meal shouldn't be overlooked. And by the way, beer makes a great appetizer as well.

No matter how you approach cooking with beer, remember the goal is to enjoy the many flavors of craft beer. So continue to try new recipes and experiment with different beer and food pairings. I promise you'll have fun.

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