When I’m thinking about developed beer-based recipes I try especially hard to avoid gimmickry. I never want beer to be in the recipe just so that I can put the word in the title. I’m automatically suspicious of “beer braised” whatever or any “Beer BBQ Sauce” no matter how top-secret or finger-lickin’ it claims to be. The beer should pass the same test as any other ingredient; it has to do something better than any alternative could. If wine, water, or fruit juice could perform the function better than beer, it should be in the recipe instead. The clincher is to pay attention to what qualities distinguish beer from these pretenders to its throne
It’s All in the Foam
The least subtle beer characteristic is carbonation. Not many other liquids can boast the same advantage – soda water, sparkling wine, cider, and pop get partway there, but they all have a specific disadvantage compared to beer. What’s holding them back? Why, a lack of foaming agents, of course. That term translates roughly from Nerdspeak (my second language) like this: bubbles in almost any other liquid quickly dissipate because there’s nothing holding them together, the carbon dioxide bubbles in beer on the other hand have a longer life because proteins in the beer give them a sort of protective skin. When these foaming-agent-enhanced bubbles are part of a batter that hits hot oil they do a better job of creating a light airy space between the hot fat and the food inside. Wheat is particularly rich in the proteins that create foaming agents – this is why hefeweizens (German wheat beers with yeast in the bottle) are known for their pillowy, lasting head. Naturally, this means that wheat beers are particularly good batter bases. In general, the more foam a beer can lift when poured, and the longer that foam sticks around, the better the beer will be in a batter.
Cheat Your Way to Golden Brown and Delicious
Deep-fried and battered food tastes great for what it is. It is the rare person who has never at least contemplated the idea of eating a delicious, golden brown bits off a piece of fried chicken and leaving the drumstick behind. Batter serves a purpose beyond its own taste; we use them to protect relatively delicate food from harsh, high temperature fat. We associate that dark golden color with delicious fried food, while it’s pale blonde cousin looks boring. The problem is that sometimes cooking a batter to that shade of delicious brown means that we’ve defeated the protective purpose and the food on the inside is overcooked. Beer to the rescue. By choosing a beer with the darker complexion we can cheat our way to golden brown and delicious without worrying as much about overcooking.
Bitter for Balance
Chicken does not like to be overcooked, but it also doesn’t seem to fit the category of foods that need delicate protection. In this instance, we can employ one of beer’s calling-card flavours in an interesting way. Poultry, especially the dark meat from high-quality birds, has a rich and fat-laden flavour profile. The hoppy bitterness from a pale ale is ideal for matching this intensity and adding some background sophistication. We’ve covered the different strengths that we want to emphasize in different recipes. Here is my quick reference chart for which beer styles work best in particular applications.
The Quick Reference Guide
Hefeweizens and other German style wheat beers: The workhorse for batters on lightly flavoured food. Great for everything from onion rings to tempura. Dunkelweizen: These dark wheat beers are well-suited for thin pieces of delicate fish or white-meat chicken. American wheat beers and hopfenweisses: Nice balance for sweet, saline shellfish like oysters and shrimp. English-style bitter: the classic for pub style fish and chips. It needs a thick piece of slightly fatty, deep water fish that will have the fat to balance its concentrated bitterness. American pale ale: fried chicken and other full-flavored meat options. Batters for fried foods is one of the rocksolid beer cooking specialties. It’s an application that uses all of beer special characteristics in a way that no other liquid could. Carbonation, color, and flavour are all put to great benefit here. Whichever beer you choose don’t forget to follow my tip from an earlier post and make sure it is well-chilled.