The Session #47: Cooking With Beer

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. This month's, chosen by Beer 47, is 'Cooking With Beer'.

And I'll perfectly honest. I have some real issues with beer as an ingredient. Because I’ve had too many great-sounding dishes that wasted good beer and too many basic dishes that buggered up the very notion of using beer as an ingredient.

Let's be clear: I've had some great food, both at home and in bars/restaurants, that have used beer. My first trip to Brugge was a revelation; the food-beer matching at Den Dyver was faultless and my first taste of carbonnade made with Westmalle at Erasmus opened my palate to how beer could be a vital part of the recipe itself.

Home experiments have tended towards the dessert course, with Innis & Gunn pancakes proving a success and framboise-injected, chocolate-dipped strawberries a la Homebrew Chef being slightly hit-and-miss. Although my Belgian-ish beef stew cooked with an English-brewed, Belgian-style ale was rather superb, even though I do say so myself.

So, what's my problem? Two things.

#1 – Quality food using quality beer, badly.

Yes, you can put an aged gueuze into a sauce for slow-cooked duck. But if it ends up tasting of vinegar, what’s the point? Yes, you can pour barrel-aged imperial stout over a delicate vanilla ice cream. But if it ends up tasting of a melting ashtray, what’s the point? Yes, you can mix in (insert name of seasonal beer here) into the canapés at a beer / brewery launch but if we have to be told what the flavour is supposed to be, what’s the point?

Sometimes, it seems the point is to impress with big beer names. Regardless of the impact it actually has on the dish’s flavour.

#2 – Basic food using basic beer, badly.

In the UK, pub menus and supermarket shelves are often home to a steak and ale pie. It’s a simple concept; ale helps tenderise the steak and add flavour to the meat. If the beer is roasty, malty, caramel, then shouldn’t those flavours be in the pie? If you name the beer used, and you’ve drank that beer before, shouldn’t you be able to recognise the flavours in the pie?

It shouldn’t be bitter (when a heavyweight stout has been added and the flavour profile hasn’t been corrected by a dab of sugar). It shouldn’t be advertised as ‘boozy’; it’s about flavour, not alcohol. And I’ll reserve a special circle of culinary hell for the recipe that lists ‘beer, bottle of. Any will do’. There was one in The Times this week. Suggesting the use of Bud. FFS.

I’m hoping to find a middle ground this year where beer is put to use respectfully and brings added value to a recipe. Until then, I’ll stick to the best beer-in-food I know – cold frothy beer makes the perfect batter for fried fish. And as it’s all about carbonation and not flavour, there’s no need to get carried away with which beer you use. Now, where’s that bottle of Bud…


  1. At The Bull, in Horton Kirby, when I ordered fish and chips, the response was "What beer do you want in the batter?" I said a polite "pardon?" in response. The ebullient and wonderful landlord opened his palm and showed it to all the beers currently on (about 8). The choice was of any beer currently on and they made it up right there. Perfect.

    Cooking with beer is a fine balance. It's easy to chuck beer in for the sake of it but sometimes it does make it all better. My imperial stout chilli is made better because of the beer but I've had other recipes where it's not worked out. The one thing which always makes me shudder is seeing IPA gravy. IPA GRAVY?! Oof.

  2. @Phil I like the idea of beer-can turkey/chicken. Seems a sensible way of cooking a bird.

    @Mark - I'm yet to be convinced that the choice of beer influences the flavour of the batter - I'd rather have Jaipur in the glass than waste in on the fish, for instance - but I love the theatre at one of my locals where the cook comes out to the bar and pulls off a jugful of beer to go make the batter when you order fish & chips.