There are plenty of lists out there telling you about all the unusual and wacky things you can do with beer - apart from drinking it, of course - like killing slugs and fruit flies, washing your hair with it, loosening rusty bolts or cleaning copper and brass, but what I like to do most with beer - apart from drinking it, of course - is cook with it. Beer's enormous diversity of styles and flavour profiles makes it an exceptionally versatile ingredient, suitable for everything from savoury to sweet, starter to dessert, snack to entrée. For instance, you can use it to make the staff of life, which I think is where we'll begin.
I've found baking bread to be one of the most satisfying jobs in the kitchen. Beer and bread are linked by that wonderful creature, yeast, which provides the lift to a loaf and is the source of both carbonation and alcohol in a pint, so it makes good sense to combine the two, and that's probably how a lot of bread used to be made - with the yeasty froth (aka 'barm') that sits on top of ale while it's fermenting. There isn't enough residual yeast in a bottle of beer, even unfiltered and bottle conditioned beer, to raise dough so we have to add bakers' yeast, or use that other common leavening agent: baking powder. Personally I prefer the former, and although there are plenty of Google-able recipes for plain, everyday beer bread, I really like this one from the BBC's Hairy Bikers for beer and cheese bread.
Dissolve four teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of active dried yeast in 16 fluid ounces (450ml) of room temperature brown ale and set it aside for 5 to 10 minutes until frothy.
In a large bowl, combine 1lb 2oz (520g) of strong white bread flour, 11oz (320g) of wholemeal flour, 7oz (200g) of grated cheddar, 2½oz (75g) of grated parmesan, 2oz (50g) of milk powder, 1½ teaspoons of salt, 1½ teaspoons of English mustard powder and 2 teaspoons of fennel seeds. Add the yeast and beer mixture to the dry goods along with two beaten eggs and start mixing it with your hands. It'll be incredibly sticky at first but gradually it'll start to come together and form a stiff dough. The stiffness is important because this bread is going to be baked on a sheet rather than in a bread tin. If the dough was slack the bread would sag under its own weight and be too flat.
Place the dough on a clean, floured work surface and begin kneading - about 20 minutes ought to do it and the dough will become smooth and elastic. If that kind of effort fills you with dread, five minutes in the mixer with the dough hook should do the trick.
Divide the dough into two loaves (round or torpedo-shaped, it's up to you), place them onto a large baking sheet and score some diagonal slashes, about an inch apart and not too deep, across each one. At this point most bread recipes would suggest covering the loaf with a damp tea towel but that might prevent the dough from rising properly (and it might stick too). The best method I've found for proving a loaf of bread is to get a big plastic bag and make a sort of tent over the dough. Make sure the bag is big enough to allow enough room for the dough to rise, which should take about one to two hours, depending on how warm it is in your kitchen. Slower is better because it gives the yeast time to develop a good flavour as it works its way through the sugars in the dough. The whole point of covering it, by the way, is to stop the outside of the dough from drying out and forming a crust which would inhibit a good rise.
Preheat your oven to 400°F/200°C/gas mark 6.
When the loaves have doubled in size brush the tops with egg white, place them in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown. When you tap the bottom of the loaf it should sound hollow. Cool them on a rack and enjoy liberally smeared with the topping of your choice. Especially good with soup.
Steak and Ale Pie
I have to admit that this staple of the pub menu is probably my favourite way of using beer as an ingredient. Beef, onions and mushrooms sitting in a rich gravy with a lid of pastry on top. Just typing those words makes my mouth water. Again, this is a dish which you can vary both in the ingredients and the style of beer you put into it, but a good quality English pale ale or bitter, or a darker beer, usually Guinness, is the most commonly used beer for this dish. A lager or a blonde ale - even a good one - just isn't up to the job. This recipe will fill a good sized pie dish (9"-10") but it's equally suitable for making individual pot pies.
Start by cutting two pounds (about 1kg) of stewing steak or chuck steak into cubes. Expensive cuts of beef aren't needed for this pie: in fact, a cheaper cut with plenty of connective tissue will yield a more unctuous gravy as the collagen breaks down with prolonged cooking. At this point you can coat the meat in seasoned flour if you wish. Sear it in a large, hot pan (a pan big enough to cook the meat, liquid and vegetables in) in small batches: if you put it all in at once the juices from the meat will stop it browning properly, and as Alton Brown has reminded me so many times, engaging your meat with the Maillard reaction by searing it will give you more flavour. It's best to use an oil with a high smoke point, such as safflower oil or peanut oil, for searing meat because it's best done quickly and at a high temperature. Forget all those myths about searing meat to seal it and keep the juices in - what we're doing here is developing flavour.
Roughly chop two onions, two cloves of garlic and 6oz (150g) of button mushrooms. Return the meat to the pan with the vegetables (and the meat juices that have leached out - see above) and add 14 fluid ounces (400ml) of ale and 17 fluid ounces (500ml) of beef stock. Now is the time to check your seasoning and add any herbs (English garden herbs such as thyme, marjoram, maybe a little rosemary), but keep the aromatics to a minimum if you really want to taste the beer. Bring it to a boil and simmer for an hour, or as long as takes for the meat to become tender and the connective tissue to render down and thicken the gravy.
Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C/gas mark 7. When the meat stew is ready pour it into your pie dish, wet the edges of the dish with water and cover it with a sheet of puff pastry. Press the pastry down onto the edge of the dish to seal, and crimp it with your thumb and forefinger or press the tines of a fork into it to make a pattern all around the edge. Cut two or three slits in the centre of the pie to allow the steam to escape then brush it with a beaten egg and bake for about 25 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.
This is a recipe you can vary by changing the beer, the vegetables (seasonal root vegetables are best), even the meat. A chicken and mushroom pie is good, but a chicken and mushroom pie made with beer is superb.
Those of you familiar with the works of John Steinbeck will know that there's a passage in Cannery Row where Doc asks a waitress at a roadside diner to make him a beer milkshake. The idea had been bothering him for some time, ever since his friend Blaisedell the poet had said "You love beer so much, I'll bet one day you'll go in and ask for a beer milk shake," and eventually he decides to order one, just to get it out of his system once and for all. The strange look he gets from the waitress compels him to make up the name of a bladder infection - bipalychaetsonectomy - and a doctor's order (bogus, of course) to drink one a day. In the book it turns out to be halfway palatable, while the film version portrays Doc's reaction to it as less than favourable.
Well, we've had a number of beer milkshakes on the menu here at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar during the past seven years, including Guinness, (512) Pecan Porter and Live Oak Hefeweizen, and all of them have been just fine. There really is no limit to which beer you can use, except maybe its price, although my mind is starting to get ideas about making a Sam Adams Utopias milk shake. If only I had some Sam Adams Utopias...
Of all these recipes, this one is by far the easiest to make and hardly needs any instructions because you probably know how to make a milkshake already. All you need is ice cream, beer and a blender, plus whatever flavour enhancers, toppings and garnishes take your fancy. For instance, we added a little orange zest to the hefeweizen shake, although that banana/bubblegum flavour that characterises a good hefeweizen hardly needs any flavour enhancement, and orange zest might be more suited to a witbier shake, along with a touch of coriander. A particularly interesting concept, and one I've yet to try, is a sour beer milkshake made with something like New Belgium La Folie. La Folie is especially sour, but there are some on the shelf with a sweeter element to provide balance, such as Duchesse de Bourgogne. I think there's plenty of scope for experiment there.
Beer Ice Cream
If you're going to make a beer milkshake why not go one step further and make the ice cream with beer too? Beer ice cream isn't as uncommon as you might think. Austin's own Amy's Ice Cream has both Guinness and Shiner Bock ice cream on their menu and will make ice cream to order with any beer you provide, which I know they've also done with (512) Pecan Porter for a local beer dinner.
Once again, this is where beer's wide range of flavours gives it a solid advantage. Heck, some beers, such as framboise, kriek and peche, even come with their own built-in fruit flavouring! Others, such as the darker beers with those hints of coffee and chocolate that come from dark-roasted malt, and beers with coffee or chocolate added to them like a coffee porter, lend themselves to the addition of more coffee and/or chocolate, nuts, chocolate chips or perhaps dried fruit. This time, however, the darker beers lose their advantage because there's plenty of scope for fun with other intensely-flavoured beer styles such doppelbock, American strong ale (think Arrogant Bastard), barley wine, altbier, Belgian saison, tripel or dubbel... or how about a big west coast IPA sorbet with all those grapefruit and pine flavours?
Along with baking bread, baking a cake is one of my favourite things to do in the kitchen, and it's so easy (I'll avoid the obvious pun here) to work beer into a recipe because you're essentially making a thick batter with beer as the liquid element. Some cake batters are thicker than others so in those instances you're going to need a strongly-flavoured beer if it's not going to get lost in the mix. Obviously we're talking again about porters and stouts. Fruit cake has long been a staple of British tea-time although I know it has a tough time over here in the US, so how about making it a little more interesting?
Before starting on the build, grease and line a 7 inch (18 cm) cake tin and preheat your oven to 325°F/170°C/gas mark 3
In a mixing bowl combine 8oz (225g) of self-raising flour, half a teaspoon of baking powder, 4oz (100g) of softened butter, 4oz (100g) of soft light brown sugar, one teaspoon of mixed spice (equal parts of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice plus a dash of mace and black pepper), the grated zest of one lemon, 5 fluid ounces of porter or stout and two eggs. Beat for two to three minutes until well mixed, then add 12oz (350g) of dried mixed fruit. Bake for about 90 minutes: a skewer pushed into the cake will come out clean when it's done. Allow it to cool in the cake tin then wrap it in foil or greaseproof paper and leave it alone for a week to mature. Two weeks is even better.
Alton Brown's motto is "Play with your food." In other words, most recipes are simply a springboard to dive from into the waters of experimentation. With a little cooking knowledge and some assistance from Google (other search engines are available) and YouTube, there's no end to the culinary uses you can put beer to, but bear in mind that chef's adage: Don't cook with any wine (or beer) you wouldn't drink.