One undeniable fact about beer is that a lot of Canadians drink it.
About 80 percent of us throw back alcoholic drinks on a regular basis, and about 57 percent of those drink beer, with wine numbers close behind.
And although many people are aware of wine’s role in complementing and elevating the experience of fine dining—including its use in sauces, reductions, and desserts, for example—fewer of them seem to understand the major role that beer can play as an ingredient in many dishes.
The fact is, just about anything you can cook with wine can also be cooked with beer. And, as with wine, part of the pleasure involved is consuming varying amounts of that component during the cooking process.
Beer’s versatility as a liquid ingredient means that it can be used in lots of different ways. Look through any beer cookbook and you will probably be surprised at the range of dishes the ancient brew helps bring to savoury perfection.
The taste of different kinds of beer, naturally, needs to be taken into account when cooking. Some are savoury and even heavy-tasting; others are light and almost sweet. Still others, such as hop-heavy brews like IPAs, can impart a bitter taste. But beer’s natural hoppy bitterness is pretty well balanced by its malted sweetness, generally speaking, in most commercially available brands.
The craft-brewing revolution that swept Canada during the past two decades, though, has helped introduce hundreds of variations on the dear old theme, and beer connoisseurs now gaze at, sniff, sip, and swirl beer with the same expert intensity as the most devoted oenophile.
Aromatics and flavour profiles for different kinds of beers can include descriptors such as fruit, spice, florals, coffee, chocolate, smoke, and any number of words you might previously have thought should be restricted to wine tastings. It is therefore best, probably, to think in simpler terms when starting to cook with beer.
One of the first things to remember is to cook with beers you like, just as with wine. If you enjoy the earthy, slightly bitter, and robust taste of ales, educate yourself about which dishes you might like that flavour to be a part of. That could mean substituting beer for water or stock in your favourite stew, chili, or soup. (Stouts and porters are definitely in this category.)
The lighter, crisper taste of lager (like Pilseners) might go well in a batter for shrimp or with fish and chips, even as a glaze for poultry or in cooking shellfish.
Beer also has a place in baking and is used in many different breads (especially in combination with various cheeses), muffins, biscuits, and even crackers. It can impart a nutty, toasty taste, and the carbonation helps as a leavening agent to give cakes (even pancakes) a fluffier, lighter mouthfeel. It also keeps things like cookies fresh and soft for days and can add complex and deep flavours to baked sweets.
So, where to start? Well, our favourite brews are already pretty much inextricably linked in our minds with backyard barbecues, picnics, and camping. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to start thinking about how that combination of malted barley, yeast, hops, and water can improve the flavour of whatever you might be throwing on the grill.
That means adding beer to meat marinades, barbecue sauces, brines, or as a braising liquid for meats that are finished off over the coals.
Beer-can chicken is a method of barbecuing poultry that looks as weird as it sounds.Its aficionados, though, swear that upending and balancing a chicken by inserting its stuffing cavity over an open and partly filled beer can and cooking it in a capacious barbeque renders its meat as moist and flavourful as any cooking technique ever devised.
One great thing about beer-can chicken is that the vertical cooking position ensures even browning of the crispy skin on all sides, as with a rotisserie. (Note: because of possible contamination by plastic linings on some beer cans, it is advised to switch to a can that you can be sure is made of nothing but metal, or use one of the many commercially available substitute “cans”, usually with a drip tray.)