Even as many of my friends have switched from beer to wine as their alcohol of choice, I’m still a beer drinker at heart. I like – no – I love wine, but I will almost always choose a beer over a glass of wine. I say almost because given a choice between a Coors and some cheap wine, the cheap wine will win.
This preference carries over to how I cook. My mother cooked with beer, and I started doing it as soon as I was old enough to buy beer. It works as an excellent substitute if red wine is called for in tomato-based dishes. I use it in red sauce, pasta e fagioli, chili and some soups.
For me, using beer is a matter of convenience as well as taste. We always have beer in the house, even though my pain meds keep my alcohol consumption to an absolute minimum. Poor Logan needs something to help him decompress after a particularly tough day of waiting on me hand and foot. And my beer-drinking friends (I do have a few left) shouldn’t have to suffer just because I do. ☺
Obviously, though, taste is most important. I’m not saying that beer is better than wine, just that it’s different. They both give food an earthy flavor, but beer provides more of a subtle layer of flavor than wine does.
Here’s what I find interesting about using beer instead of wine. The rule for cooking with wine is to never use one you wouldn’t drink. I assumed this would also apply to beer, but one day I was making red sauce and the only beer in the refrigerator was a couple bottles of Coors Light (which a friend brought over). Out of desperation, I used a bottle, hoping it wouldn’t ruin the sauce. (Although considering it tastes like crappy water, I’m not sure why I thought it would have any affect at all). Anyway, “shocked” would be the appropriate word for my reaction to the sauce. It was not only acceptable, it was damned good. I thought this was a fluke, so I used it the next time I made sauce. Much to my surprise, it was still great.
I’m flummoxed by this. Does beer have properties that make the “cook only with what you would drink” rule irrelevant, or are we being lied to? I’ve been saying for years that food and cooking are now marketed the same way fashion and beauty products are – to confuse us and make us feel inadequate. It’s enough to make me try some cheap chianti just to see what happens.
Here’s the bigger point, then (and it’s one I didn’t even know I had until I started writing this). We all have rules we follow when we cook. Some of them are rules that have been passed down from the Food Gods. Your own personal Food God can be anyone from Thomas Keller to Mark Bittman to your mother. But we eventually find our way to our own set of rules, don’t we? This is as it should be, because we’re cooking our food in our kitchens to feed our families and friends. Cooking shouldn’t just be about following a theory or a recipe. Even my own Food Gods get it wrong sometimes.
A few suggestions about cooking with beer:
I prefer a beer that’s not too strong, because I don’t want it overpowering the other flavors. A lager works best for me, specifically Yuengling Lager. I am also, at heart, still just a girl from Pennsylvania.
I use approximately equal parts beer and stock. For most dishes that means 12 oz. But you can use more or less of either or both, depending on how much liquid you need and what kind of flavor you’re looking for.
Using flat beer is fine. Poor it into a glass container and stick it in the refrigerator. My sister once stuck an open can of beer in the fridge, and discovered later that she had a can full of “mushrooms”. Using beer that’s been sitting around overnight after a party is probably not a good idea, if only because of the “ick” factor.
Almost all the alcohol cooks outs, but if you have any reservations about cooking with beer (or any alcohol), it’s better to be on the safe side.