Flash in the Pan 

Preparing–and pairing–food with beer

When food and drink cross paths, wine usually hogs the spotlight during the act of ingredient pairing. And when beer is on tap, the meal is all too often relegated to the role of sponge.

This perception seems to be changing. The interwebs are flooded with beer-based recipes and beer/food pairing suggestions, while many big city restaurants have added beer sommeliers to their staffs to assist customers in ordering suds to complement their suppers.

Some enthusiasts go as far as to claim that beer is more food-friendly than wine. While wine makers have only grapes to play with, beer makers can use bitter hops, sweet barley, bready yeast, as well as spices, nuts, fruit, chocolate, pumpkin, licorice, orange peel...basically anything in their brews. This opens the door to more complex and nuanced pairings beyond color-coded rules of thumb like "red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat."

Personally, I'm skeptical.

A parallel is often drawn between lager and ale and white and red wines, respectively, allowing for easy conversion between wine pairing and beer pairing. But the number one rule in pairing food and beverage is that both should taste better because of it. And personally, I don't think there is a beer in existence that will bring more out of a steak than the cheapest glass of red wine. And no beer, however sweet, will beat a good dessert wine alongside your lemon meringue pie. Beer with your cheese? Not unless the cheese is on pizza, inside a chile relleno, or on a burger.

So the first question you should ask is: Does this food want wine or beer?

In my opinion, foods that are greasy, salty and spicy are the best for beer. Spicy foods go well with hoppy beers like an IPA if you want to bring out and appreciate the spice. Alternatively, if you're afraid of spice, you might want to smother it with a sweet, thick porter. Carbonation cuts grease, so heavily carbonated beer goes well with pizza. Yeasty beers make sense with bread, and a sweet beer nicely balances an acidic meal. But the bottom line is: Beer drinkers are often particular about their preferences, and not likely to switch types based on what's on their plate.

That's why cooking with beer deserves more attention than pairing. And in keeping with the simplicity of wine-pairing lore, it's the foods cooked with beer that are best washed down with beer.

A good beer batter can be magical. Just ask my college date after she ate some fried chicken I'd marinated overnight in beer batter before frying. That meal got me a lot further than I probably deserved. (Liz, if you're out there, you know it's true).

These days, halibut is my beer-battered protein of choice, and I use a recipe I pried from the proprietor of the Cooper Landing Roadhouse in southern Alaska.

To make the batter, use 1 cup Krusteaz pancake mix, 1/2 cup amber beer, 2 pinches of dried dill and 1 pinch seasoned salt.

Cut the halibut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Dip them in the batter, then roll them in Japanese panko flakes. Place the battered pieces on wax paper so they don't touch each other, and freeze. When frozen, put them in a plastic bag and keep frozen until ready for use.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

To cook, immerse the frozen battered chunks of fish in hot grape seed or safflower oil. These fish chunks, with hot sauce and tartar sauce, need beer like fries need ketchup.

And then there is that delicately named tailgating delicacy: "beer-butt chicken."

Mix together 1 tablespoon paprika, 2 teaspoons of chili powder, 1 teaspoon of oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder, 1 tablespoon garlic powder and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. At both openings of the bird, gently pull the skin away from the flesh, slide your hand in, and gently separate the skin from the flesh all around the chicken. Rub the spice mixture onto the flesh underneath the loose skin.

When the grill is hot, open a can of beer. Drink half, and add chopped garlic and onions to the can. Place the can upright on the grill. Lower the chicken so the can enters the body cavity. Cover, and cook until the wings hang loose.

Of course, no discussion of beer and food would be complete without mention of the tribal dish of Wisconsinites: bratwurst and beer. In principle, the brats are bathed in warm beer, which often contains chopped onion and garlic, and black pepper. This adds moisture and flavor to the brats.

I can only wade so deep into this topic because of a great schism in the beer brat community between those who pre-cook their brats in warm beer (not boiling, not even simmering, except for the occasional lazy bubble) before grilling, versus those who bathe their brats in beer after grilling.

Each camp has reams of documentation and anecdotal evidence for why their method is the one true way to prepare beer brats, none of which addressed the also sticky question of whether the beer must be Old Milwaukee.

But at the risk of being pelted to death by cheese curds, I'll admit that, much to my surprise, soaking the grilled brats in beer was preferable to the pre-soak. And my favorite beer for this procedure—and for drinking with the finished product—was a microbrew pilsner.

Ask Ari: Old onion magic

Q: Dear Flash,

Following your recommendation last year to make French onion soup with on-their-way-out onions, I ended up completing only the first part of the recipe—essentially boiling down 12 pounds of butter and onions in the oven for three hours at 400 degrees, stirring and scraping often, followed by another hour of the same on the stovetop. I allowed the results to cool and then froze it in sandwich bags for later use. These packets of sweet onion goodness are time-saving, almost universally useful and obscenely sweet, unlike any onion concoction I've ever eaten.

What makes them so sweet?

—Onion Sweetie

A: They don't call it caramelization for nothing. As the onions cook in the butter, the sugars turn to caramel. These caramelizing sugars are augmented by even more sweetness as the onion's carbohydrates break down into sugars.

The sweetening process is greatly enhanced by the fact that as the onions heat up, the water in them evaporates, concentrating the remaining contents.

Caramelizing the onions in the oven is a good way to go because there's less risk of burning them than on the stovetop, but you still need to watch closely and stir regularly, being careful to scrape the sides of the baking dish as the onions cook down. I'm not sure why you switched from the oven to the stovetop, but I'm glad it worked for you.

One more tip: If you use clarified butter (aka ghee), then you stand a better chance of not burning the onions, because clarified butter has fewer proteins, which raises the burning point.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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