A lot goes in to creating the perfect meal. The event, the time of day you’re preparing the dish for, the people, and the ingredients are all details you’ll want to get just right. And then there’s the beer that will be paired with the dish. Do you go with something that complements or contrasts or stands on its own? Or do you go with what your friends like to drink, despite the dish? And that’s not even to mention the beer you’re cooking with.
To help you get a better handle on choosing beer to go with the dishes you’re cooking, we asked Bill Braun, executive chef at Tired Hands Brewing Company in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, for some tips. Tired Hands brews and experiments with flavor-forward, dry, expressive beers, and their two flagship beers—HopHands APA and SaisonHands—are at the core of most of their recipes. (To learn more about Tired Hands and their brewing philosophy, see their Breakout Brewer profile in the April/May 2016 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®.)
Cooking with Beer
Choosing the type of beer to cook with can be tricky—after spending an Alexander Hamilton (or more) on a bomber or six pack, it’s a big leap of faith to commit 12 ounces or more of that liquid gold to your recipe (even if you know the beer will add interesting flavors). But Braun offers a tip that restaurant pros everywhere will echo—ignore the urgings of the cooking shows to only cook with the best beer and wine, and go ahead and use that slightly-out-of-date bottle in the back of the fridge that you’ve been meaning to open for months but just haven’t gotten around to.
“If I’m going to cook with beer, I’m probably going to use something that’s on the cheaper end,” Braun says. “We usually reserve our [good] beer for drinking.”
This is especially effective in dishes where beer adds texture more than flavor. In Braun’s fish tacos (see page 20 for recipe), for example, the beer in the batter isn’t there for flavor as much as it’s there to add an airiness to the breading as the carbon dioxide in the beer comes out of solution as it cooks.
When batter is made with milk, eggs, or water, it’s heavier and denser. Beer, however, creates a lighter, fluffier, “lacy” texture—a product of the beer’s carbonation. Using various beer styles will end in different results, but it’s important to keep in mind that the beer is there to add texture more than flavor. “We’re really only looking for carbonation from the beer, so it’s nice and light and airy,” Braun explains.
He says that Guinness or light lager or a Belgian-style beer bottle-conditioned to high volumes of carbonation beer would work best in the fish batter because of their high levels of carbonation. Dry beer is great, but if it’s big and sweet, the batter can burn before the fish is cooked through. “Really, any American adjunct lager would work.”
Beer and cheese go together as naturally as peas and carrots, whether it’s in a soup, dip, or a paired charcuterie plate. Braun’s recipe for Beer Queso (left) puts the beer front and center. HopHands is an American pale ale brewed with three types of hops and showcases notes of tangelo, kiwi, dank, pine sap, nectarine, honeysuckle, and grapefruit. When asked about the balance between so much flavor and the cheese, Braun explains, “In this instance, you do want the beer to come through. Hoppy beers or a Pilsner will add a slightly bitter backbone to the dip, which balances out the richness of the dairy and the heat from the recipe’s hot sauce. It’s all about the flavor and not so much about the texture or anything else.”
Pairing Beer and Food
Tired Hands’ approach to the perfect pairing of food and beer is evidenced in the menu for their innovative Brew Café. While all the dishes are simple, none of them are ordinary. And despite Tired Hands’ flavor-forward beer recipes, they brew up very accessible, food-friendly beer. “We focus on saisons and hoppy beers that are unfiltered, which pair with a lot of dishes but are usually tricky to cook with,” Braun says. “It’s a delicate balance.”
When it comes to balance, knowing when to use a more subdued beer over one that’s full of flavor is also very important. Inexperienced cooks might want to add a bunch of flavor to a dish using their favorite beer but end up ruining the dish because all the flavors clash. Or they might add beer to a dish that completely changes the intended texture, ending up with unexpected results.
Braun explains, “If there’s a dish where we can reflect the ingredients of the beer, we will do that intentionally. For Halloween in particular, we do an All Hallow’s Eve supper that’s a seven-course meal where we brew a beer to go with each dish. We want that dish to reflect the beer’s ingredients, without one overpowering the other. Sometimes it’s a matter of highlighting something by contrast or making them similar so they work. We decide on a case-by-case basis, depending on how weird the ingredient in the beer is.”
One question Braun and the Tired Hands staff are asked frequently is which Tired Hands beer to drink with a particular dish. “Our beers are really dry and pair really well with almost anything. I’m personally lucky to work for a place that makes such food-friendly beer,” he says. “Drink what you want.”
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