From the Chef’s Head June Edition – Joe Donlan
“The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer, according to an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription. Many of us would agree that after a hard set of tennis or an afternoon cutting firewood, there is little more satisfying than a cold, bubbly pint. Doubly agreeable is lifting a mug while eating food cooked with beer.”
It seems like every month I have a hard time deciding what exactly I am going to write about and then it hits me. Why not combine the two of the things that I love; Beer and Food! It makes the most sense because these two wonderful things are the basis of my tenure at The Old Bay. Cooking with beer can be really easy, but can just as easily be really difficult. How does that work? With the explosion of great craft breweries making all sorts of one off beers that take a traditional style of beer and turn it on its ear, it gives us so many options to play. With those options comes the temptation to simply just add that beer to one of your favorite recipes and expect it to all of sudden be transformed to this magical beer food. It doesn’t really work like that though.
First let’s define cooking with beer. If you add some beer to your favorite BBQ sauce or dump some beer into your chili recipe, to me this is not cooking with beer. That is simply just adding a bit of beer. What I mean by cooking with beer is actually breaking down the components of the beer and enhancing the notes that you want to enhance and toning down the notes that need toning down. For example, let’s go back to Stout City 2016, Bolero Snort Brewing gave us Vanilla and Cinnamon Porter. I took this beer and infused more cinnamon into it as I reduced it to make a sauce that was served on top of roasted pork loin. That’s what I mean by enhancing flavors and toning down at the same time. The components of the porter work well with subtle flavor of pork loin but by reducing the beer and bumping up the cinnamon it added a bit sweetness. It was not an overpowering sweetness but just enough to balance the sauce. Another example of having some fun with beer and food was during a Founders Brewing tap takeover. You may have heard of or even tried Mango Magnifico from Founders Brewing Company. This is a mango habanero beer. You know I was going to try to do something with this gem. Sometimes being a chef is also being a little bit of a mad scientist. Molecular Gastronomy is a type of cooking that uses the principles of biology and physics as a cooking technique. So why wouldn’t I try it! It’s science…SCIENCE! One technique is to make pearls out of a somewhat gelatinous liquid that pop when you bite into it and release the inner sauce or vinaigrette. So for my first attempt at this I figured I would try to do it about 20 minutes before the event and I had already put it on the menu. (No pressure at all). First attempt not total failure but definitely not an overwhelming success. Attempt #2…Home Run! I made Mango Magnifico “Caviar” that was served on top pan seared scallops with Mango Magnifico reduction sauce. So for this dish I used the same beer twice but in two different preparations. My latest attempt at using beer in food was not some much the beer as the hops that beer is made from. I topped mini turkey burgers with bread stuffing that hade fresh hops mixed into it along with some fresh made cranberry sauce. Since I am such a dork I had to name this dish “Hoppy Thanksgiving” I will be honest I had no idea how this dish was going to turn out but it all seemed to work in my head and I could taste how all of the components of the stuffing were going to work together. I got lucky yet again, and hit this one out the park if I do say so myself, and I DO SAY SO.
You don’t have to be a trained chef to cook with beer. The worst thing that happens is you waste a little beer. Wait, forget what I just said. Wasting beer is a crime and should be dealt with very seriously. Don’t waste good beer. You can waste bad beer though. Actually forget that also, is there really any bad beer? NO, the answer to this question is always NO! But seriously, you should never be afraid to try new ingredients, new techniques and new flavors. You may like your dishes and you may hate them. At least you tried. That is more than many people can say.