Cheap beer gets a bad rap, but I’ve been choosing it over the fancy stuff more and more these days. Unlike heavy IPAs, generic lagers don’t compete with food or give me a hangover, and they’re an absolute joy to cook with.
Wine has the cooking-with-booze market pretty cornered; outside of beer-can bacon burgers or Guinness cake, you don’t hear much about beer-centric recipes. For wine, the rule of thumb is to only cook with stuff you like to drink, which is great advice for those with access to tasty, cheap wine, but it can be hard to strike a balance between “good enough to drink” and “cheap enough for stew.”
This is why I love cooking with beer so much, and why I think more people should give it a try, especially those who’ve ruined a difficult dish with bad wine and are afraid to try again.
Obviously, beer can’t replicate the flavour you’d get from wine, but it offers all of the benefits of cooking with booze with very few risks. Here’s what a can of your favourite beer has over wine:
- Mild flavour and low alcohol: Alcohol dissolves fat-soluble flavour compounds more readily than water, which helps develop rich, deep flavours. Since beer is lighter in flavour and alcohol than wine, you can really dump it in without overpowering the other ingredients.
- Body: Thanks to a blend of starches and sugars, beer adds a downright luscious vibe when reduced.
- Carbonation: Bubbles physically lift a dish – think beer-battered fish or beer quick bread – and tenderize meat.
- Single-use containers: Gross wine has a way of sticking around to remind you of your choices. Whether you drink stubbies or cans, beer would never hurt you like this.
- Access: Twenty-five bucks can get me a case of cheap lite beer or maybe two bottles of wine, a no-brainer of a fiscal choice.
Most importantly, though, beer is a known quantity. You can probably imagine the taste of your favourite beer without too much effort, but buying an unfamiliar bottle of cheap wine is like playing tasting-note roulette. There exists cheap wine that isn’t an unholy union of paint thinner and sugar water, of course – but one unlucky guess can ruin dinner.
Speaking of paint thinner and sugar water, skip the malt liquor when cooking with beer; IPAs, strong ales, sours, and yeasty Belgians are generally out, too. Any cheap lager works great as do semi-wimpy dark beers. Basically, use your favourite cheap drinkin’ beer, whatever it may be.
The beauty of cooking with a somewhat neutral alcohol like beer is that the possibilities are truly endless; unless you’re looking for a specific wine flavour, like in coq au vin or chicken Marsala, use beer wherever you’d use wine. These are my personal favourites:
- Steak Fajitas: I pound the bejesus out of a thick chuck steak, slice the onions, and marinate them together overnight in a mixture of beer, lime juice, oil, and plenty of salt and spices.
- Mushroom Stroganoff: Beer plays especially well with anything earthy. I nearly caramelize the onions and garlic, deglaze with beer, and then add the mushrooms.
- Braised Greens: Next time you make your greens of choice, add some beer and do a long, slow oven braise with plenty of garlic.
- Anything with Cabbage: Beer and cabbage were made for each other. My love for beer-spiked borscht and schi is powerful; braised red cabbage with stout is divine.
- Sausage and Peppers: Braise browned sausages and sautéed peppers and onions in beer; done and done.
- French Onion Soup: Finish the onions off with a bit of stout instead of — or in addition to — stock.
- Chilli: Whether you’re making chilli con carne, Cincinnati-style chilli, or vegan chilli with squash, a can of beer (and maybe some cocoa powder) is just what you need.
If you also cook with beer, I’d love to hear about your favourite recipes – especially if you use it to make pizza dough. So many people swear by it, but I haven’t found a recipe I like yet and I’d really like to start.