I was making risotto the first time I poured beer into my dinner. The recipe called for a glass of wine; I was drinking a bottle of lager and I figured that I’d use that instead. It was delicious. In the 10 years since, I’ve cooked with every kind of beer there is, using it every possible way: curries with lager, breakfast pancakes with coffee stout, quick stir fries, slow-braised stews, ice creams, cakes, doughs, sauces, brines, batters and, yes, risottos.
So when can you use beer in a recipe? Simple: if a liquid is called for, you can probably substitute it for beer. This nectar of the gods comes in an incredible breadth of styles: the citrus and tropical aromas in IPA give depth to mac ‘n’ cheese and add zing to a chocolate mousse; you can cure a side of salmon in spicy Belgian Witbier and use the same bottle in place of lemon over a Thai curry; treacly Imperial Stout enriches a banana cake and can be brilliant in chilli. There’s a wonderful alchemy involved in taking a drink you love and transcending it into something delicious to eat. Here are five of my favourite dishes cooked with beer.
1. Belgian Beef Brisket
People have cooked with beer for as long as civilisation has mixed grain with water and allowed it to ferment into alcohol. It would’ve gone into breads and braises, been mixed into sauces, poured into dense fruit cakes and, if it turned sour, used to preserve vegetables. Belgium is the home of cuisine à la bière and the best, most dedicated beer cuisine: mussels cooked in wheat beer, endive in beer-cheese sauce, rabbit in cherry beer, chicken in strong golden ales, chocolate mousse with dark Trappist ale, and the classic dish of Carbonnade Flamande or beef slow-cooked in Belgian beer.
You can make this with a number of different beers – sometimes a strong, dark monastery beer, others an idiosyncratic local sour ale. It’s beer’s version of beef bourguignon, the Belgian equivalent of beef and ale stew and the ideal starter recipe for someone wanting to cook with beer. My version uses a big slab of brisket, softened for a few hours in the rich Belgian beer with some complementary spices like cinnamon and ground coriander. It’s great served with chips and a bottle of dark Belgian ale.
2. Beer Pizza Dough
The Great Beery Bake Off is how I fondly remember writing one chapter of Cooking with Beer. For several weeks I was forever covered in flour, decanting bottles into tray bakes, biscuits, pastry and cakes. It was dough that I became most interested in – it’s amazing how the yeast in the beer interacts with the baking yeast, giving extra lift and lightness, while also contributing flavour. Pizza is my favourite dough-based beer baking – quick, easy and very effective. I like to use a German wheat beer or a dark lager; both are low in bitterness and add nutty, caramelised qualities to the dough, which you can’t get using water. I top my pizza with a beery tomato sauce: just simmer chopped tinned tomatoes with garlic, basil, sugar, salt and a few splashes of beer and let it reduce into a thick sauce.
3. Lager and Chicken Lime Tacos
Sometimes rogue cans of cheap lager turn up in the fridge; God knows where they come from. I’ve sought various ways to use them in the kitchen – flat breads, curries, soups and pies – but my favourite is as a brine in tacos. Brining is one of the best ways to cook with beer, mixing it with water, salt and sugar, plus other ingredients like chilli, citrus or herbs, to help make your meat juicy and infused with flavour. Lager and lime is a well-known duo, whether it’s the old-school pub order or the wedge thumbed into bottled Mexican beer, and it gives a zesty sweetness to chicken which I top with an avocado-lager salsa (chop avocado, squeeze in lime, add a splash of beer, seasoning and fresh chilli). I also make the corn tacos with lager: mix masa harina and beer into a dough, press into very thin tacos and fry quickly in a dry pan. Pour a decent local pale ale with this. It’ll taste a lot better than any Mexican lager.
4. Beer-cured Bacon
Pork belly cured in beer is as good as it sounds. One morning, hungover and contemplating hair of the dog, I made the connection between pig and pint, and looked into making my own wet-cured bacon. You need to lower a slab of belly pork into a mix of smoky porter with some added maple syrup, water and salt. Leave it in the fridge and a week later you’ll have beer-cured bacon, which is ready to be sliced up and cooked (unless you’ve got serious knife skills this will be thick like gammon, not thin like the supermarket stuff). The beer and maple syrup add savoury smoke and sweetness, all of which is remarkable when fried, charring and caramelising onto the meat. I serve it on beer bread with beer ketchup and a glass of porter or stout on the side – it’s the best beer brunch and it can simultaneously cause your next hangover while curing your current one.
5. Stout Chocolate Banana Pudding
I didn’t know it at the time, but my mum’s Christmas pudding was the first thing I ever ate that was made with beer. It’s only later that I can look back on it and imagine how the dark, strong ale infused the festive pudding, adding richness and depth. My mum is a great cook and when my sister and I were growing up we were allowed to choose what we had for dinner on our birthdays – I always went for chocolate and banana pudding. I still do, but now I add a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout – a powerful, strong, dark beer with notes of chocolate and vanilla – to the sponge mix to reinvent my childhood favourite with an adult twist.
Mark Dredge is an award-winning beer, food and travel writer based in London. Cooking with Beer, published by CICO Books, is out now priced £16.99