Illustration by Adam Waito
Can you imagine spaghetti and clam sauce without the characteristic tang of pinot grigio? Or the French stew coq au vin without the burnished hue and fruity undertones of red burgundy? For centuries, professional and home cooks have splashed wine into braises, soups, sauces and marinades as a way to intensify, enhance and accent flavors and aromas in food.
Turns out, many beers share the very traits that make wine an attractive flavor booster—namely tannins, bright acidity and the sweetness and depth that only fermentation can provide.
Yet despite the wealth of cooking-friendly beers accessible to the average home cook, few recipes empower us to stir a bit of brewski into dishes quite so readily as wine. This has a lot to do with the sort of booze that was available when and where a lot of classic recipes were developed.
“A lot of classic cooking techniques come from France and Italy, which are two huge wine countries,” says Ian Clark, chef and owner of gastro-brewery Bru Handbuilt Ales & Eats in Boulder, Colorado. “Beer was not at the forefront.” Not only that, but cooking with beer often carries the specter of overpowering dishes with bitterness, which can deter even experienced home cooks. “People get scared of cooking with beer, but you just have to pick the right one,” says Ian Davis, executive chef of Michelin-starred Chicago brewpub Band of Bohemia. “It’s a lot like wine in that way.”
Indeed, just as different dishes call for dry white or medium-bodied red wine, not all beers are suited to all dishes—both when it comes to flavor profile and cook time and method. An hours-long meaty braise calls for something richer and deeper than, say, a cauldron of mussels that steams in less than three minutes.
Above all, our resident chefs say, be judicious when adding booze to recipes (you can always add more), taste frequently and cook with what you like to drink. Well, except maybe in one case.
In cooking, less (hops) is more
As a drinker, you may live by the mantra of “the hoppier the better”, but hop-centric styles like IPAs don’t usually translate well to cooking, particularly in dishes with long cook times.
“Anytime you get into cooking with high-hop, American style beers, especially if you have a braise, soup or any type of sauce reduced for a long time, the hops become strange, bitter and overpowering,” Clark says.
Don’t despair, hop heads. A splash of IPA is an excellent addition to marinades and brines, where its bright citrus and piney bitterness cut through the fattiness of meat without the astringency that comes from reducing it. Clark even suggests finishing macaroni and cheese or fondue with a few hoppy drops to uplift the creamy saltiness of the cheese, or adding a teaspoon or two to salad dressing.
As a general rule, though, when replacing wine with beer, Clark most often goes for Belgian styles, which are lower in hops, fermented quite low and fairly dry as a result. For quick-cooking dishes like steamed shellfish—in which the flavors don’t have much time to meld nor the alcohol more than a few seconds to burn off—his go-to beer is Belgian saison.
“Since you’re bringing forth that alcohol, I like those really estery, dry, effervescent, quaffable beers in the realm of a dry white wine,” Clark says.
Davis similarly keeps it low-ABV, fizzy and crisp for quick-cooking dishes calling for white wine—swapping in German pilsner or Band of Bohemia’s clean, earthy house jasmine rice lager. He often doubles up on the quantity of beer and reduces it by half to account for the CO2.
Speaking of low-ABV, crisp, cheap-ass, mass-produced brews, beers such as Miller High Life and Hamm’s also lend pleasant, barley-esque tang to a range of lighter dishes, from pan sauces to braised greens, French onion soup and skillet-cooked sausages. This is mostly because you can splash in too much without fear of overpowering the dish.
If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. At least you have beer to drink.”
Longer cook times = more depth of flavor
As cook times increase, whatever booze you pour in will come out the other side more intense and concentrated. This affords more opportunity to think about the nuances of different beer styles—from fruit to oak to spices and herbs—that align with or enhance certain ingredients.
For instance, when Davis makes carrot lasagna with roasted cherry tomatoes for Band of Bohemia’s late-winter menu, he adds the brewpub’s flagship Noble Raven ale—with German and Belgian malt and Hallertauer hops—to the marinara sauce in place of red wine, mostly because of its aromatics.
“It’s medium in body with good depth of flavor and hints of orange and citrus, so it lends itself nicely to the carrot,” Davis says.
Braised dishes like beef ribs, pork shoulder and chicken are among the most versatile when considering what beer to add. Higher-alcohol brews—containing a lot of the esters involved in fermentation—likewise give off more robust, interesting flavors, and stand up to longer cooking times without getting lost.
Consider the aforementioned coq au vin, into which a whole bottle of light, fruity red burgundy goes along with a whole chicken, bacon, caramelized pearl onions and a splash of brandy. Clark suggests swapping in a “wicked malty, boozy bomber” of barleywine. Elsewhere, Belgian-style dubbels or American brown ales lend savory-sweet, dry notes to chili or winter vegetable stew, while malty scotch ale adds smokiness befitting of fatty pork. If a short ribs dish calls for red wine, crack open a porter and or stout, let it reduce in a saucepan and add it. If you want it extra dark and robust? Make it a dry Irish stout instead.
“It helps to have an end goal in mind of what you want to do—whether that’s a recipe, cut of meat or dish—and then buy beer accordingly, rather than force beer into,” Clark notes.
It also helps to remember that failure can happen even when you have a game plan, which is—let’s face it—a hallmark of being a cook, amateur or professional
“I think a lot of times people overthink things and get away from what cooking’s really about, which is having fun and enjoying the process,” Davis says. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. At least you have beer to drink.”