You’re Soaking in It

Cooking with Beer by | Mar 2007 | Issue #3

Good beer makes great marinades

Photo by Martin Thiel

Grillers, let us not, in the frenzy of this recent dry-rub fervor, forget our trusty partner in sousing: the marinade. And when concocting a marinade, let us not automatically reach for a pie plate and a half-can of PBR, or crumple our noses at the idea of using better beer to steep one’s pork. A little sacrifice from the fridge can pay off big-time on the grill—and besides, it’s good for you!

No, seriously, you may have heard about this. Two years ago, in a wholly uncharacteristic flash of health consciousness, beer lovers everywhere began extolling the virtues of Udo Pollmer, who had himself extolled the virtues (more mildly) of using beer in marinades. Turns out, a few hours in a beer bath before grilling can help prevent the creation of harmful HCA, or heterocyclic amines—a carcinogen.

So now that you have a rationale based on health, you need only surmount the pervasive culinary stigma that pins beer as a chronically lesser-than ingredient. To steel yourself against the skeptics, take a cue from Lucy Saunders, whose Grilling with Beer might be the handiest guide to backyard brewfood ever printed. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to someone more ardently enthused by beer as food.

“I just love the taste of beer,” she practically sings when I ask why she began cooking with beer. And this love goes way back. “In college, I majored in Middle English. Instead of writing a paper, I offered to cater a feast, with the main dish being chicken stewed in ale and honey. I mean, it was Genesee Cream Ale, so it wasn’t the greatest— but the drinking age was 18 back then, so I was able to tap into some creativity early. I’ve been cooking with beer since.”

“Most of my inspiration comes from the brewers; this isn’t what they teach you in culinary school.”

As grill-centric as her book may seem, she’s keen to clarify: “It’s not a book about barbeque; it’s a book about craft beer.” Grilling with Beer contains a whole chapter on beer-based marinades for everything from the heartiest game to delicate fillets of whitefish. Even vegetarians can get in on the action.

“As chefs always point out: Chicken, beef, pork—they’re pretty much blank slates,” Saunders says. “It’s how you use other seasonings that counts.” Saunders suggests sharp herbs like tarragon, basil and rosemary as perfect teammates for yeastier beers like unfiltered Farmhouse Ales or big Belgians. “I should say, I’m not using my best Belgian Trippel for a marinade here—it’d take three bottles to cover a pork shoulder. I usually focus on beers that are affordable but full of flavor.”

For beef and game, Saunders recommends darker beer with a strong caramel malt base, both for intensity of flavor and for its “gorgeous” browning effect. Chicken and fish are best suited by beers with a lighter hop profile, as milder flavors can be overwhelmed by what Saunders calls “an old-hop edge.”

Of course, it all depends.

“If you do a curry marinade, for example, well, go ahead and use a hoppy IPA—the curry will take care of that. Meanwhile, Belgians, as a result of the secondary or tertiary fermentation, carry more of the aromatics that people associate with wines or sherries.”

It can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Saunders is clearly someone who has fun on her hunt for endearing combinations—in other words, she’s the perfect person to do the work for us first.

“It’s fun to experiment,” she says. “There are a lot of parallels between craft brewing and what people do with beer on the grill. Most of my inspiration comes from the brewers; this isn’t what they teach you in culinary school.”

White Balsalmic-Witbier Marinade

Because raw honey is thicker than refined honey, it adds body to the marinade and has a richer, mellower flavor that offsets the Witbier well. Filtered honey may be substituted, but the taste and texture will be different.

12 oz Witbier
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup sesame oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp pink peppercorns
1/4 cup raw honey
1 Tbsp crushed bay leaves
1/8 tsp ground cardamom

Mix all ingredients in blender on high. Use as marinade for salmon or boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Marinate at least 2 hours for best flavor. Makes 2 cups.

Hazelnut Maibock Marinade

Use as a marinade for pork or lamb, or as a basting sauce for grilled squash or peppers, and garnish with minced scallions and grated lemon zest.

2 oz chopped shallots
2 Tbsp hazelnut oil
1/3 cup toasted, chopped hazelnuts
1 oz hazelnut liqueur
12 oz Maibock or Strong Golden Ale
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/8 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp white pepper
1/4 cup raw honey

Place shallots, oil and hazelnuts in a 1 quart saucepan; sauté over low heat until shallots are tender. Add remaining ingredients; cook and stir 10 minutes.

Remove from heat, scrape mixture into blender and blend on high until creamy. Makes 1-3/4 cups.

Tarragon IPA Brine

Don’t substitute plain canned black or green ripe olives, as the flavor will change completely. Use this brine on lamb, poultry or eggplant for at least 2 hours for best flavor.

12 oz hoppy IPA
1/4 cup chopped, fresh tarragon
1/4 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp buckwheat honey or dark cane syrup
2 Tbsp kosher salt

Blend all ingredients in a blender on high until mixed well. Use as brine or marinade.

If using vegetables such as eggplant or portobello mushrooms, mixture may be reused in grilling. Pour reserved brine through a mesh sieve to remove herb-olive solids, and apply as a paste on vegetables before cooking.

Malt Monster Shrimp

Use a Bock Lager or immensely malty Dark Ale to make these shrimp. They will turn a luscious dark gold color, thanks to the malt caramelization on the grill.

12 oz Bock Lager
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 Tbsp chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp hot pepper sauce
2 Tbsp toasted sesame chili oil
1 tsp salt
2 lbs large shrimp, shelled and cleaned (total 30 pieces)
10 skewers

Mix bock, juice, parsley, garlic, pepper sauce, chili oil and salt in a large, resealable plastic bag. Add shrimp and seal. Chill overnight.

Prepare grill. Remove shrimp from bag and drain marinade. Thread onto metal skewers, 3 per skewer. Grill shrimp on a grate or a grilling basket over medium heat, about 2 minutes each side. Serve immediately. Makes 10 servings.