BEER CLINIC :: Liquid Bread – Beer as Ingredient

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on March 15, 2012

Note to reader: this column is about cooking, but it does not contain any recipes except for my favorite beef stew, because I don’t have the time to test them all and they are readily available online. You can use the links to feast your eyes and try your hand at cooking with beer.

As you are aware, there is an ongoing but unacknowledged competition between beer and wine—which one is better? Recently I was asked by a wine snob, “Okay guzzler, if beer is so great why don’t we cook with it?”

Darn good question, snobs. Of course, it is well known that wine contains umami, that elusive savory, protein flavor, the “fifth taste.” So adding even a dash of wine enhances the flavor of the most bland stews and vegetable dishes. But try that with beer and the result is usually bitter or unpalatable.

Yet beer does have a place in our cuisine as an ingredient, as well as being the best accompanying beverage to just about any type of American or ethnic food (take that, wine snob!). The question is, how best do we use beer in our cooking? We’ve established that beer does not have umami, so what does it contribute to our food?

Mendocino Brewing

In the context of cooking ingredients, beer does not bring the same kind of sweetness that wine does, since all the malt sugar is used up with fermentation. But it does bring a hearty, bread-like quality that adds body to a dish. White ales/wheat beers and malty German beers provide this characteristic the best, but so do American ales. But beware the hops! There’s a good reason we don’t routinely use hops as seasoning in our foods. The bitterness of the hop will always overpower its flavor, unless it is carefully balanced with the other seasonings in the dish, or even the addition of sugar. English bitters and Irish beers have less bitterness (low IBUs) and are great cooking beers. Stouts and porters may contain some sugar, and they have a sweet, mellow quality that works with hearty foods and even desserts.

Now I’m a pretty good and creative cook, and when I think about creating a dish based on an ingredient I try to place it in context of the attributes listed above. And I rely on my instincts…association, first impressions…With beer I’m thinking Belgian, German…I imagine drinking beer with hearty full-flavored foods, cheese, spicy foods, dark red meat, and strongly-flavored seafood. Any strong-flavored food. Perhaps even a sweet and spicy dessert?

courtesy of Time Out Chicago

My free association immediately leads to my favorite beer-based dish: Mussels steamed in Belgian beer. Delightful! This is a traditional Flemish dish, which I first tried while touring Normandy by car. It always brings back memories of eating in small seaside villages. A garlic mayonnaise and thin-cut French fries accompany the mussels, and the combination is called “Moules Frites.” Here’s the Chicago variety of mussels steamed in Belgian beer, as served at the Hopleaf Bar

You can do the same with clams, using American beer, such as Sam Adams Beer pairs well with shellfish, the hoppier the better. There is nothing like an American IPA to drink with lobster, clams or crab (See The Beer Clinic, Feb 24, 2011). Besides drinking the beer, you can use it for Steamed Shrimp. And of course, Beer-Battered fish and chips are a staple food item in many American bars. While you’re at it, throw in a few onion rings. Used in batter, the carbonation of the beer acts as leavening to keep the batter light.

courtesy of

Speaking of beer as leavening, Beer Bread is terribly easy and fun to make, and a surprise to serve.  The basic recipe consists of self-rising flour, sugar, salt, and beer.

There are many variations including the type of beer used, and additional ingredients such as cheese. Use this as a started and let your imagination run wild.

Another traditional beer dish that is not often served in this country is Welsh Rarebit. Welsh rarebit is a fabulous melted-cheese sauce made with English porter and served over bread.  Unlike fondue it’s made with beer, not wine. Take that, wine snobs!

Another Flemish dish based on beer is Beef Carbonnade, the national dish of Belgium.  In this hearty beef stew, the hops are moderated by strong seasonings (onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf) and softened by the addition of brown sugar.

Beer pairs so well with red meat!    That leads us to my second-favorite beer dish, Guinness Pot Roast. This recipe was given to me by one of my patients, who used to serve it on St. Patrick’s Day.  The recipe is to be found at the end of this column.  The sweetness of the honey, and the sharpness of the fresh basil, perfectly balance the hops in the beer.

Beer Brats -

Another beer-and-meat favorite is Beer Braised Lamb Shanks.  The strong lamb flavor pairs well with an IPA.  And of course, Bratwurst just HAS to be cooked in beer, doesn’t it? Variations of this recipe cook onions, beer, and brats together, finish the brats on a grill, then serve in rolls covered with the onion-beer mixture.  Great game day and superbowl food.

Beer and vegetables are unexplored territory to me, but I am inspired to experiment.   When it comes to vegetables, you have to think strong-flavored vegetables.  Brussels sprouts, cabbage, sauerkraut seem to work well when braised in beer.  Going with the stronger flavors and sweet veggies, how about Carrots and Dill in beer?

Or Wild Mushrooms and Leeks cooked in Stone Levitation Ale?  The Stonebrew Blog is a great source for creative beer-based recipes.

And last but not least, dessert!

Porters and stouts are great ingredients for desserts, going well with chocolate cake, brownies, and gingerbread.   The Grammercy Tavern in New York has apparently been serving Beer Gingerbread for years. I’ve seen variations using milk stout, or other stouts, but Guinness seems to be the favorite brew to use.

courtesy of

I haven’t tried Chocolate Cake made with Stout, but I’m told it’s spectacular; same with brownies and other chocolate desserts. Just looking at the photo in the recipe makes me gain weight (see the June 22, 2011 YBN blog “Why does beer make you fat?”)

The most interesting beer dessert, though, is Guinness Ice Cream. This was a favorite when I lived in Boston, made locally and served at many ice cream parlors and taverns.  In one variation, a scoop was put in a glass of stout to make an ice cream float.  Enjoy!

So, dear reader – how do YOU think beer holds up against wine in cooking?

courtesy of dkscooks



1 1/2 lbs chuck or round roast

2 medium onions

1/2 lb carrots

2 heaping Tbs flour, seasoned with salt and pepper

Salt and pepper

2-3 Tbs cooking oil

1/2 tsp fresh basil, minced

2/3 c Guinness

1 tsp honey

2/3 c stock or water

The roast should be about 1-inch thick and sliced into about 8 pieces.  Peel and chop the onions, and slice carrots into 1-inch pieces. Cook the onions in the oil until soft, then layer them in a, greased, ovenproof dish.  Roll the beef in some seasoned flour, and brown in remaining oil in the pan; remove as they are cooked and place on top of the onions, in a single layer.  Arrange the carrots around them.  Add more oil to the pan as needed and stir in the remainder of the seasoned flour.  Cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly, then add the basil and the Guinness.  Allow to boil for a minute or two, stirring constantly, then add the honey and the stock.  Return to a boil and pour over the meat.  Cover and cook in the oven at 325 for 1 1/2 hours.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken Schauer March 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

It’s funny, but I had to go buy cooking wine for a recipe earlier this week, and I thought about using beer instead. Quite often I make a beer reduction, cooking it down, and then adding other items to make it into a sauce, but the base is always the beer.
One that my wife requests often is my chicken made that way. I take beer, start the reduction, then add soy sauce and some garlic and ginger. Then if it needs it, some heat in the form of hot sauce.. Meanwhile, I steam the chicken, pounded and salt and peppered of course.

Then I dice up the chicken, toss it in the sauce… throw it over some steamed veggies, and viola… instant stir-fry that is a household staple.

As for the beer though, I use my own home brews. Usually stouts and scottish ales for this recipe. I’m sure almost any commercial example would work…


admin March 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Sounds delicious! When I think of beer and chicken, I think of Beer Can chicken, which we wrote about in our “The Road to Not SxSW” post last Spring (, but this sounds wonderful, particularly reducing a Stout or Heavy, big flavorful brews, where you can actually pick what dominant flavors you want to see your beer play. Looking forward to trying it ourselves. Thanks for weighing in.


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