Beer brewing dates back at least to ancient Egyptian and Sumerian times. And, until fairly recently in human history, beer was the preferred beverage over water, since it was considered healthier. But the ancients didn't only drink beer; they also cooked with it. According to National Public Radio food writer Kevin D. Weeks, "ancient Egyptian and Sumerian physicians considered cooking with beer a healthy practice."
Of course, back during the Babylonian and Egyptian empires, brewing beer itself was much akin to cooking. Spices and herbs were often added to fermenting brews, along with things like carrots, cheese and hemp. I suspect that beer in ancient times was a little more like stew than the clear, clean brews of today.
I'm sure we've all been exposed to cooking with beer in one form or another. Beer-battered fish & chips or onion rings, for example, have been on pub and bar menus for as long as I can recall. A lot of chiliheads I know incorporate beer into their chili con carne; and, for tailgaters, beer-braised brats are a staple. Beef & Guinness stew is a slam-dunk, especially on St. Paddy's Day.
Like wine, broth or stock, beer adds flavor to foods. The flavor might be relatively light and subtle, or could be big, bold and rich. As is the case when cooking with wine, you'll want to follow some basic matching principles when cooking with beer. For example, it's better to use a dry white wine than a rich, heavy red in a light cream pasta sauce. Similarly, if you're creating an airy batter for fish, you'd turn to a light beer like Pilsner, not a stout or porter.
Similar to cooking with wine, quality matters when using beer in the kitchen. It's OK to sip Coors Light while you're cooking, but reach for something more flavorful to use in the cooking. By the way, teetotalers needn't worry: The beer flavors the food, but virtually all of the alcohol burns away during cooking. The exception, of course, is using beer (or wine) to flavor uncooked foods. City Weekly and Devour Utah art director Derek Carlisle has the simplest, most straightforward recipe for the latter—an uncooked beer dessert—I've ever heard: "Combine stout, ice cream and your choice of Baileys or Kahlua, depending on the island you're missing, and hit 'blend.' "
Ales—which include dark beers like porter and stout, as well as milder brews such as hefeweizen and pale ale—tend to have heavier flavors which can be earthy, fruity, spicy or all of the above. Lagers are lighter and more subtle in flavor, as well as drier, generally, than ales. So, you'd turn to a lager for crispness (think acidity in wine) and maybe a stout for bolder, toasty malt flavors.
When cooking with beer, keep in mind the flavor components of the beer. An IPA, for example, with its hoppy bitterness, might be too bitter for many foods and would overpower them. In that case, a light lager might be the answer. On the other hand, an IPA could really perk up a batch of braised Brussels sprouts. And I wouldn't hesitate to throw some IPA in with other spicy ingredients for a Maryland-style shrimp and crab boil.
Some recipes call for marinating food in beer. Be careful here—I've found that beer marinades often turn food a funky, gray color. I prefer to use beer for adding flavor during cooking, not beforehand.
At certain restaurants—Porcupine Pub & Grill is one—you'll find spent-grain bread. Making bread like this is a way to combine home brewing and cooking with beer. In this case, the homemade bread incorporates the grains that are leftover from the mash during brewing. The spent grains are flavorful and nutritious, and can add a unique characteristic and texture to your home-baked bread.
As I alluded to earlier, braising with beer is one of the easiest entry points into cooking with beer. One of my favorite recipes is beef short ribs braised with Irish stout. It's pretty simple and takes only about 15 minutes of prep time. Simply sit back and sip some stout while the short ribs braise. Here's how I do it:
Pat dry 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of beef short ribs with paper towels, and season generously with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or stock pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot and just begins to smoke, add the short ribs. Sauté the short ribs, turning until well-browned on each side. Remove to a plate.
Add two cloves minced garlic and half a diced onion to the Dutch oven and sauté until lightly browned, stirring frequently for about two to three minutes. Add a diced celery rib and a diced carrot and cook, stirring frequently for five minutes.
Pour 2/3 cup beef stock into the Dutch oven and stir, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan (this is called deglazing). Add the ribs back to the Dutch oven, along with 1 rosemary sprig and a couple of thyme sprigs, plus 12 ounces Irish stout, and stir. Bring the stew to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes.
While the stew cooks on the stove, preheat the oven to 380 degrees. Cover the Dutch oven or pot and place it in the preheated oven. Allow the beef to braise until tender, about 2 hours. Remove and discard the herbs. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and/or pepper as needed. Serve with sides such as a crisp green salad, Irish soda bread, pasta or mashed potatoes.