Tips For Cooking with Beer

by Kate Heyhoe


In Cooking with Beer, Lucy Saunders writes that beer flavors foods in three ways:

  • bitterness from the hops
  • sweetness from the malt, and
  • a "yeasty bite from the fermented brew with its tenderizing enzymes."
Beer Mug

She also shrewdly reminds us that not all foods and not all dishes meld well with beer, and unlike other authors, shuns the idea of an all-beer meal. "This flies in the face of brewpub promotions," she writes, "which often feature special brewmaster menus where every single dish is prepared with beer." As she aptly points out, few wine tasting dinners serve meals with wine as an ingredient in every single dish. Nor does she insist that you must serve the same beer for drinking as the one used in the dish.

It takes some time and experimentation to find out how to best assimilate beer into your cooking style. If you are already an experienced cook, then rest assured it has its place in just about every technique: baking, braising, deglazing, batter-frying, sauces, macerating & marinating, poaching, simmering and even spritzing. But the intensity of the flavors require a bit more effort in melding it within a recipe, lest you overpower other ingredients or worse, end up with a bitter mess that simply tastes yucky.

Without overwhelming you with the nuances and many details contained in these books, here are some basic rules-of-thumb when first cooking with beer:

  • Beer is by nature bitter. It comes from the hops. Malt adds a sweet flavor that counteracts and harmonizes with the bitterness. Likewise, sweet foods profit from the marriage with the hops' bitter taste. Use sugary vegetables like onions, carrots, corn, etc., and even add some honey, molasses or sugar itself. Caramelized onions are a classic example of a sweet vegetable ideal with beer.
  • The bitter hop flavor also helps counteract the richness of creamy, oil-based or cheese dishes, but flavor-wise, use it as sparingly as you would a squeeze of lime or touch of vinegar.
  • Acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, vinegar and mustard can compliment the sweet flavors, adding balance and depth to the dish.
  • The yeast is perfectly suited to baking and battering. Breads, fritters and pancakes profit from being made with very yeasty brews, which lighten the texture and make for tender, tasty crusts.
  • Beer tenderizes meats, making for good marinades. Game marries well with beer, but so does chicken and fish. For the newbie, robust dishes are a good way to start before experimenting with the subtleties beer can have on more refined flavorings.
  • The more the beer is cooked and reduced, the stronger its flavor will be. If the dish requires long cooking and reduction, avoid using too strong a brew, lest you end up overdoing it.
  • Finally, sample some beers to understand the range of flavors. If you can imagine a beer going well with a particular dish as a beverage, then it would likely make a good ingredient as well.

One of the most overwhelming decisions in cooking with beer is deciding which of the many styles to use. If you've ever been to the beer aisle at Cost-Plus or other store featuring craft and imported beers, you could easily grow faint trying to pick the best selections. We consulted Bob Klein's Beer Lovers Rating Guide (Workman) for the best quality brands for drinking then used them in cooking. There are other popular guides as well, some written by beer-guru Michael Jackson, but this one is recent, well-organized and handy for the newbie.

But what style of beer to start with? A porter, a stout? Perhaps a pilsner or a bock? How about a fruit-flavored beer or a barley wine? Yikes! It's too much to absorb. Not really, but at first it can seem so. For cooking, we found that the pale ales and nut brown ales are good for starters.

Pale ale is generally considered the most versatile for cooking. It has a balance of hoppy, rich flavors and fruity overtones. But beware the India Pale Ales (IPA's), which are excellent for drinking yet can be too bitter for cooking. Strive for a lighter pale ale, like Anchor Steam, or, depending on the dish, a more hoppy brew like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Perhaps our all-time favorite beer is a nut brown ale, Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale. Described as "the burgundies of the beer world," nut brown ales can be used interchangeably with pale ales but lend themselves particularly well to cheese dishes and rich stews. This is the beer that single-handedly converted us to beer appreciation.

Beer Mug

After you've tasted and cooked with these styles of beer, you will most likely be ready to explore other flavors. The strong Belgian ales in robust meat dishes, fruit beers in desserts, wheat ales in fish and poultry—the list goes on. We recommend consulting the Substitution Chart in Famous Chefs for a handy guide to the styles of beer, the cooking properties of each, and the brands for each style rated for their malt and hop flavors as low, medium or high. Remember: the malts and the hops are the key flavoring agents you will need to address when cooking with beer.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Cooking with Ale


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