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The Goodness of Beer

Potato Bread with Cheddar, Beer, and Onion - find the recipe below!

For some, beer is food. For others, beer is for cooking.

Beer as a beverage can be so satisfying, and is so ubiquitous, that it’s often overlooked as a cooking ingredient. While wine is thought of as the optimum cooking alcohol—and rightly so—beer, too, has its place. And like wine, beer has been used in this manner for millennia.

There are a few things that I find interesting about beer; okay, more than a few things. The first, of course, is how good it tastes. But also the fact that beer likely began as a spontaneous accident. No, I am not talking about something that may have happened after consuming too much of it. I’m referring to its origin.

Beer and bread—both of which are based on natural fermentation—share similar evolutionary paths and are thought to have originated simultaneously (or at least around the same time) in northern Egypt or the southern Levant. As with bread, the first beer, however crude, was most probably an accident. Leavened bread likely originated when a primitive dough or gruel was left to stand for too long and yeast cells found their way into the mix. And likely the same with beer: A bowl of barley and water was left to stand for a period of time, long enough to spontaneously ferment. And it’s no coincidence that bread and beer were usually made in the same area. In Ancient Egypt slaves are said to have been paid a salary of salt, bread, beer, and garlic. And, in fact, the easternmost land bordering the Mediterranean sea—the Levant—takes its name from the modern word leaven (which of course, is what happens when things ferment), a metaphor for the sun rising in the east.

With this knowledge it surprises me that beer is not thought of as a food as well as a drink. The famed Parisian boulanger, Lionel Poilâne (1945-2002), whose bakeshop uses a sourdough starter that has been in his family for three generations, sometimes referred to his bread as “solid beer.” I know a man who abides by the claim that beer is a form of food, and that one can actually sustain on beer alone. Now many may make jest of this, but he means it quite literally. Intentionally or not, he did prove this for a while (intermixed with shots of whiskey for good measure), but he became rather pallid in complexion. He has since been consuming a more traditional diet, I am told.

As with any liquid that contains alcohol, cooking with beer takes some thought and practice. Beer naturally has a slightly bitter flavor from hops, and too much could easily overpower the entire dish. But with the right amount and proper technique (and a bit of experimentation), the result will contain only mild nuances of the beverage. On the other hand, and to reiterate, if too much beer is added, or it becomes too concentrated, the result will carry an unpleasant bitter flavor. Beer makes a perfect braising liquid for beef or pork, where the strong flavors of the meat mingle with and can stand up to the flavor of beer.

Lastly, I’ll mention my spontaneous near-accident when cooking with alcohol; it’s a brief story which I’ve told before. More than a few years ago I was camping with friends and sautéing steaks in a cast iron skillet over an open fire. Wanting to de-glaze the pan, I used the only liquid I had at the time—the beer in my hand. The outcome was delicious. Achieving this, we attempted the same thing again, only substituting vodka. The open flame almost blew us up. I decided then that cooking with beer was a lot more fun—and safe—than cooking with vodka over an open fire.

To assimilate beer into your favorite recipes, begin by replacing just a portion of the liquid with beer, lest you end up with a bitter concoction. And remember to have extra on hand to sip while you ponder what’s cooking.

Potato Bread with Cheddar, Beer, and Onion

Makes two loaves

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups beer
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 large onion, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon caraway seed
2 tablespoons yeast, divided
3 large eggs
4 cups unbleached bread flour
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Combine the potato and beer in a small pot, bring it to a boil then lower to a simmer. Cook the potato for about 15 minutes or until very soft, allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer the beer-potato mixture to a medium bowl and stir in the whole wheat flour, caraway seed, 1 tablespoon of the yeast, and 1/2 of the minced onion. Allow this mixture to ferment for at least an hour at room temperature. Transfer this mixture (the pre-ferment) to the bowl of an upright electric mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add the eggs, bread flour, and remaining tablespoon of yeast. Run the mixer first on low speed, until it gathers the ingredients together, then on medium speed; knead the dough for about 6 minutes. Then add the butter and cheese; knead the dough for another 2 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl or rising bucket, cover it and allow the dough to ferment for 60-90 minutes. Then gently press the dough down and allow it to ferment another 30 minutes. Divide the dough into two pieces and shape it into loaves. Sprinkle the remaining minced onion on the top of the loves and roll them gently, pressing the onion into the dough, then place them in lightly oiled loaf pans. Preheat an oven to 425F and allow the dough to ferment and rise for about 45-60 minutes. Bake the dough for about 30 minutes. When it is initially placed in the oven spritz the oven with a little water, lacking a sprayer toss a few ice cubes on the oven floor to create steam. Rotate the loaves after 15 minutes and spray the oven again. The bread is done when it is golden brown, the onions are browned, and sounds hollow when tapped with a finger. Remove it from the oven and their pans and transfer it to a wire cooling rack or clean towel which has been folded to double thickness. Allow the bread to cool 15 minutes before slicing.

Beer-Battered Haddock

Beer-Battered Haddock

Makes 4 Servings

2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, separated
1 cup beer
oil for frying
4 boneless haddock filets, skin-on
flour for dredging

Combine the flour, baking powder, egg yolk, and beer in a bowl and mix with a wire whip until smooth. In a separate bowl, whip the egg white to soft peaks, then fold it into the batter. Fill a pot or deep pan with a few inches of oil and heat it to 325F. Dredge the haddock in flour, shaking off any excess. Then dip the floured fish in the batter, and holding it by the tail end, allow some of the batter to drip free. Carefully add the fish to the hot fat. Fry the fish for about 5 minutes, or until crispy and cooked throughout. Remove and drain on absorbent paper. Serve with lemon and tartar sauce.

Potato Bisque with Beer, Bacon, and Cheddar

Makes about 6 cups

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 slices bacon, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
12 ounces beer
3 cups chicken broth
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup cream
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Heat the butter in a small soup pot over medium high heat. Add the bacon and cook it until it begins to brown. Add the onion and carrot and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the beer, 2 cups of the chicken broth, the diced potatoes, salt and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Simmer the soup for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft. Then add the cream. Purée the soup in a food processor. If the soup is too thick add the remaining stock to thin it. Transfer the soup back to the soup pot over moderate heat. Stir in the cheese. Check for seasoning. Serve hot or cold.


Beer and Dried Cranberry Vinaigrette

Makes about 1-1/4 cups 3/4 cup beer, divided
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil

In a small pot, combine 1/2 cup of the beer and all of the dried cranberries. Bring the beer to a simmer and cook the cranberries for about a minute. Transfer to a small bowl and refrigerate it until chilled. Pour the beer/cherry mixture into a blender, along with the vinegar, sugar, Dijon mustard, salt, pepper, and remaining 1/4 cup beer; run the blender until all of these ingredients are smooth and emulsified. With the blender running, add the oil in a slow stream.

Homemade Honey-Mustard with Beer

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 cup yellow mustard seeds
2 tablespoons brown mustard seeds
1/4 cup honey
1 cup beer
1/4 cup white wine
1 teaspoon turmeric

Combine all of the ingredients in a glass jar and allow to soak at room temperature for about two days. Transfer to a blender and puree to desired consistency. Return to the glass jar and refrigerate.

Drunken Beans (Frijoles Borrachos)

Makes about 1 quart

1 pound dried pinto beans
2 slices bacon, diced small
1 medium onion, peeled & diced
1 medium carrot, peeled & diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 cups beer
3 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup barbeque sauce

Place the beans in a large bowl, cover them with water, and allow them to soak for at least 6 hours or overnight. Drain the water from the beans and discard it; reserve the beans. Cook the bacon in a heavy-bottomed sauce-pot until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crisp. Add the onion, carrot, and garlic; sauté until translucent but not browned. Stir in the beer, chicken stock, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower it to a simmer and cook the beans for 45 minutes. Stir in the barbeque sauce and simmer the beans an additional 30 minutes, or until they are tender and the sauce has thickened.

Coq au Bière (Chicken Braised in Beer)

Makes 4 portions

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 (3 pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 slices bacon, diced
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
8 medium mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup light beer
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil and butter over high heat. Add the chicken and brown it on all sides. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Add the bacon to the pan and cook it until it just begins to crisp. Then add the onion, carrot, and mushrooms; sauté for five minutes, or until the vegetables just begin to caramelize. Lower the heat and add the flour; cook for 2 or 3 minutes while stirring. Add the beer, chicken broth, salt, and pepper; use a whisk to remove any lumps from the flour. Bring the sauce to a boil, and then lower the heat to a slow simmer. Add the chicken back to the pan, cover with a lid, and simmer for twenty minutes. If too much liquid evaporates, or if the sauce becomes too thick, add a small amount of water. Check for seasoning and doneness of the chicken. Serve while hot.

Beer-B-Q Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup beer
1-1/2 cups ketchup

Heat the oil in a small heavy sauce pot. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to caramelize. Stir in the garlic, sugar, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, salt, and black pepper; sauté for another minute, then stir in the beer and ketchup. Bring the sauce to a boil, and then lower it to a simmer. Stir often with a wooden spoon. Cook the sauce over low heat for approximately 30 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced to about 2 cups.

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