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Cooking under the influence

One of my fondest memories of cooking with alcohol is from 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 deglaze the pan, I used the only liquid I had at the time—the beer in my hand. The outcome was delicious. Attempting to build on that success, 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 safer.

Beer as a beverage can be so satisfying and flavorful that it is often overlooked as a cooking and baking ingredient. While wine is often thought of as the optimum alcohol to cook with, beer also has its place. And like wine, beer has been used in this manner for millennia.

Interestingly, beer and bread—both of which are based on natural fermentation—are thought to have originated simultaneously in the southern Levant region of the Mediterranean. As with bread, the first beer—however crude—was probably an accident. Leavened bread likely originated when a primitive dough or gruel was left to stand for too long and natural yeast cells found their way into the mix. And some culinary historians claim the same happened with beer, that it was probably a bowl of barley and water left long enough to ferment. Thus it’s no coincidence that in ancient civilizations 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. 

Given this history, it always 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.” Now there’s a subject to contemplate in silence. 

I know one person in particular who insists that beer is a form of food, and that one can actually survive on the fermented liquid alone. He was living proof of this fact, intentionally or not, for a while—but eventually he became overly 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. With the right amount and proper technique (and a bit of experimentation) a dish made with beer will contain only mild nuances of the beverage. On the other hand, if too much beer is added or it becomes too concentrated, the food will carry an unpleasant bitter flavor. For these reasons, beer makes a perfect braising liquid for beef or pork, where the strong flavors of the meat mingle with, and can stand up to, that of the beer; lighter beers are more suited to chicken. But the area of cooking where beer is truly suited is baking; the natural yeast flavor in the liquid pairs well with baked goods. And while it may sound odd to incorporate beer into a recipe such as chocolate cake, the sweetness of the sugar and slight bitterness in the chocolate marry well with the flavor of beer.

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

Chocolate Beer Cake

Makes 1 (12-inch) cake

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
4 eggs, separated
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup beer

Preheat an oven to 375º F and prepare the cake pan by greasing it lightly with a tablespoon of butter and dusting it with 1/4 cup of the flour. Tip the pan in all directions to coat it with the flour, then tap out any extra flour.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining 2-1/2 cups of flour with the baking powder, baking soda and the salt. Melt the chocolate by stirring it in a small bowl over a simmering pot of water.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the egg whites and 2 tablespoons of the sugar and whip on high until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl on the electric mixer, combine the remaining 3/4-cup of butter with the remaining sugar and beat on high speed until thoroughly creamed and light in texture. Add the egg yolks and whip for another couple of minutes, or until light and airy. Lower the speed and add the melted chocolate, mix until combined, add the beer, and mix until thoroughly combined. While the mixer is still running, gradually add the flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture. Mix until thoroughly combined.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the batter until just combined. Gently pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the surface with the spatula.

Bake the cake in the middle rack of the oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake pulls out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and turn out onto a sugared board or counter. Allow to cool before eating or frosting.

Chocolate-Lager Sauce

Makes 2-3/4 cups

1 cup lager
14 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Place the lager in a small sauce-pot over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer; place the chocolate chips in a small bowl and set aside. When the beer simmers, pour it over the chocolate. Stir the chocolate sauce with a wooden spoon until the chocolate is completely melted. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before using. This sauce is an ideal accompaniment when drizzled over chocolate beer cake and served with vanilla ice cream.




This post contains only a selection of the beer-inspired recipes included in Buffalo Spree's March 2011 issue.

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