Not Just For Drinking….

American craft beers make their way into the kitchen with savory entrees and even desserts

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Halcyon Chicken Breakfast Enchiladas, from “The Great American Craft Beer Cookbook.”

Not just for sipping anymore, American craft brews are making their way into the kitchen, too.

In the past few decades, Americans’ concept of beer has come a long way, from watery lager made by few mega-breweries to complex tasting brews made by small, independent breweries that focus on quality over quantity. A new generation of craft breweries is thriving and food lovers have taken notice, flavor-packed beers are garnering a new wave of interest not only from the bar stool, but also the kitchen.

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So, why is cooking with craft beer such a hot trend? “When you think about the individual ingredients in craft beer you can really taste — malt, hops, and yeast, you realize that each of these can add their individual flavors to a recipe. It’s almost like opening a spice cabinet to add to a dish,”

“Beervoffers a whole range of flavors for cooking you can’t find with wine,” she says. With so many types of craft beer, the flavors they can add to a dish run the gamut.

“Think roasty, malty richness, or hints of coffee, chocolate and earth. Then there’s the lighter, floral end of the spectrum, which can include nice notes of bitterness (not always a negative flavor). It’s just another tool for adding layers of flavor to food.”

Beer For Every Course

Dishes like the mussels steamed with Belgian ale and beer batter fried fish have been around forever, but the new wave of American craft beers has inspired chefs and home cooks to think outside the box and come up with unique ways of using craft beer in recipes, including breakfast dishes, salads and even desserts.

Holl traveled around the country visiting breweries and brew pubs for his book and noted how chefs used beer in dishes, even at breakfast. His book opens with the chapter “Beer and Brunch-A Great Way To Start The Day” that includes recipes for Beer-mosas — a cocktail of orange juice, Belgian-style wheat beer (witbier) and triple sec, sweet potato pancakes made with dark beer, and Halcyon Chicken Breakfast Enchiladas, tender beer-marinated chicken and scrambled egg enchiladas cloaked in a creamy enchilada sauce made pleasantly zesty with a delicate Belgian-style witbier.

Beer in breakfast food can make perfect sense, says Birmingham. “I love buckwheat pancakes made with porter beer. The final result is a slightly denser pancake with an incredible nuttiness and rich roasty flavors that goes perfectly with my coffee.”

Craft beers are a welcome ingredient in appetizers as well says Holl, “I found that very floral IPAs can be great in salad dressings. Caldera Brewing in Ashland has a nice strawberry-grapefruit dressing I include in the book — there’s already some citrus notes in their IPA, so it’s a natural fit.”

Craft beers with bold flavors work well in homemade condiments, too. Mustard, barbecue sauce, and cheese spread are frequently made in brewpubs with the house beers. “The stronger flavors in condiments like these bring out the roundness of beers with citrus or pine notes like IPAs,” notes Holl.

Beer can also serve as a marinade for meats. The carbonation acts to break down meat fibers to tenderize meat. Less acidic than traditional marinade ingredients like vinegar, citrus juice or wine, the overall affect of craft beer as a marinade is gentle, with the added benefit of complex flavors infusing the meat. Holl recommends nutty, slightly sweet Scottish-style ales for marinating grilled meats. The sugars from the beer caramelize when they hit the hot grill and add to the flavor of steaks and ribs.

One of the most common ways to use beer in cooking is to braise with it or add it to soups. Lighter beers like craft brewed lager or pale ale are a good substitute for some of the stock or water in cheese soup, chili, and lighter chicken stews. Stouts and porters are great for long braised stews and recipes like Braised Short Ribs with Porter because they add chocolate, dark spices, and coffee notes without overwhelming the flavor of the meat and vegetables.


Pale Ale Brown Sugar Pineapple Cupcakes, from “The American Craft Beer Cookbook.

Beer is good in savory recipes, but that doesn’t mean dessert should be left out of the fun, says Holl.

“Think of stout, it already has notes of chocolate and coffee right out of the keg, so adding it to a chocolate cupcake, it gives this depth and richness you wouldn’t get from just sugar and chocolate.”

An easy way to try out beer-as-dessert is a two-ingredient ice cream beer float. Holl suggests getting creative with the ice cream and the craft beer you pair it with. In “The American Craft Beer Book,” he recommends rocky road ice cream with pecan nut brown ale or a vanilla-infused stout with vanilla ice cream.

Craft beer is also being used as an ingredient in sweet baked goods in brewpubs across the nation. The carbonation in beer can help give baked items lift, and each brew adds a unique quality to a dessert.

“There’s a recipe in the book for a pineapple cupcake that uses pale ale made with hop varieties that present mango and other tropical fruit flavors. A nice spiciness and bready-ness from malt is in there too. It’s a surprisingly nice compliment to the pineapple in the batter,” says Holl.

Choices, Choices

With even the most mainstream supermarkets carrying a huge selection of craft beers these days, it can be daunting to choose a beer to cook with. How do you know what is going to work in your recipe?

Start with a few rules of thumb, says Birmingham.

“Number one, ask yourself do you like to drink the beer you’re going to add to your dish? If you hate chocolate stouts, pouring one into beef stew might make for a less than satisfying meal.”

Next, consider the overall dish and experiment by tasting, say Holl. “Think about the overall dish — is it assertive in flavor with a strong cheese like Gorgonzola? A porter isn’t going to stand up to that, but an IPA could. Thankfully, these days you can go into a bottle shop or a grocery store and buy just one 12-ounce bottle of a craft beer, or buy a few with similar styles from different breweries and taste all of them to decide. It’s all part of the fun.”

“By all means, choose a good craft brew, but don’t break the bank,” says Birmingham. Barrel aged beers and ones with lots of nuance and a hefty price tag are best drunk by the glass so you can appreciate the subtleties of the hop, malt, and barrel flavors. Dumping them into a pot with a lot of other flavors won’t do the beer or your pocket book any favors.

Finally, avoid the extremes. That habanero brew you bought on a lark is a fun thing to sip, but once it’s reduced down in a chili, it might be overwhelming. Ditto for very hoppy double IPAs and beers with lots of added holiday spices or pumpkin. “I avoid super-hoppy beers that overwhelm the palate like big double IPAs and ones with too many added spices like pumpkin or holiday beers. I want to be the one adding spices to dishes myself,” notes Birmingham.

Beyond the Bottle

The interest in craft brewing has extended beyond the liquid to the ingredients used to make the beer. Cooks, bakers, and pickling hobbyists are using the spent grains, malted barley, and the shoots of hop plants to make exciting dishes outside the pint glass.

Many craft breweries send their spent grain (grains that have been soaked in water to make wart — the first step in beer making) to farmers and ranchers as feed for livestock. The non-alcoholic grains are easy to digest and make a fine meal for cows and pigs, but bakers have also taken notice of spent grain — the mix of malted barley, hops and other grains add density, flavor, and fiber to baked goods for human consumption, too.

“I’ve seen brewery restaurants using spent grain in bread, cookies and even pizza crusts,” says Holl. Brewers often have an abundance of spent grain and are happy to help it find a second life, so Holl recommends asking a local brewery or a friend who brews their own beer at home for a few cups of spent grain for your next baking project.

Another new food trend that’s popped up in the craft beer scene is the use of hop shoots. Though the hop cones used to make beer are not edible, the tender shoots of hop vines are edible and are often pickled.

“They are lovely pickled, there’s a recipe for them in my book and they taste like asparagus,” says Holl. Fresh hop shoots are sometimes available at farmers markets in early fall. Though Holl notes that gardeners grow them as an ornamental vine and local hop farmers may be willing to sell you shoots as well.

With Oregon offering up hundred of excellent craft brews with complex flavors and an eye for quality, it only makes sense to think outside the pint glass and give our craft beers a turn in the kitchen, too.


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