Beer is a great drink to pair with Thanksgiving dishes. And, not only pair, but cook with. However, you don’t want to throw just any old beer style in with the stuffing or gravy- cooking with beer takes a little work. And, while you can drink whatever beer suits you with Thanksgiving dinner, if you do want to set up some great beer and food pairings you’ll need to plan ahead a bit.
For example, last year, I didn’t think twice about what beer I’d be drinking with dinner. I stuck my head in the beer refrigerator and pulled out a big, dark, hefty beer- by that I mean 15% ABV, 107 IBUs- one of the most filling beers I’ve ever had. Although the beer paired nicely with the food flavor-wise, suffice it to say that this beer was not a great pick while stuffing my face with triple helpings of mashers and turkey- this resulted in a near-literal interpretation of a beer-food coma!
This year, in addition to having a few selections of beer at dinner, I’m planning on throwing some beer into a few of the dishes. Some of you reading this might not be so sure about cooking with beer- well, let me digress for a few minutes to discuss a little history about beer and why beer is an amazing ingredient.
Once upon a time, beer was considered food. It all started many, many years ago in the Middle East, when the ancient peoples began cultivating barley. They found that when boiled, the grain tasted much better (sweeter). The thick sugary soup eventually became a thick malted brew. Depending on the region a beer was made in, certain spices, herbs and other ingredients were added to make the “dish” taste better.
Beer has come a long way since those days. For awhile, beer was pushed aside as people made way for wine at the dinner table, but, as Randy Mosher will point out in his introduction of Lucy Saunders’ The Best of American Beer & Food:
“with it’s vast range of strength, color, bitterness, sweetness and aromatic delights to work with, it is a rare food that fails to find a beery partner… matching up beer and food is really about using common sense and paying attention.”
And so we arrive here today, a society full of craft beer, beer pairings, beer chefs, beer dinners, and beer as an ingredient. Beer can play many roles in cooking and baking. I came across a great article called “Tips for Cooking with Beer” by Kate Heyhoe of Global Gourmet, that summarizes how beer can be used in cooking. Here are some of the main points:
Beer flavors food in 3 ways:
1. Bitterness from the hops
2. Sweetness from the malt
3. Yeast from the beer has tenderizing enzymes
Some guidelines to consider:
1. An all-beer meal is usually NOT a good idea
2. There is no need to pair a dish with the same beer you used to cook with
3. Sweet foods benefit from the bitterness of hops
- Use sugary veggies like onions, carrots, corn etc. and even add some sweetener like molasses, honey, or sugar
4. Hop bitterness helps counteract the richness of creamy, oil-
based or cheesy dishes.
- Use sparingly as you would a squeeze of lime or vinegar
5. Acidic foods can compliment the sweet flavors of beer, adding depth and balance
- Think tomatoes, citrus fruits, vinegar and mustard
6. Yeast is a great tool for battering and baking.
- Breads and pancakes benefit from very yeasty brews, which can lighten the texture and make for soft, delicious crusts
7. Beer tenderizes meats (enough said!), making for great marinades
8. The more beer is cooked and reduced, the stronger the flavor will be. If the dish requires long cooking and reduction, avoid using too strong a brew.
9. Pale Ales and Nut Brown Ales are good for starters. IPAs are often too bitter for cooking.
10. For newbies to beer cooking, robust dishes are a great way to start so you can learn to distinguish the effects beer has on the dish. Then, you can experiment with the more subtle effects beer has on more refined flavorings.
Now that I’ve divulged to you the briefest version of beer and food history, let’s figure out how this applies to Thanksgiving dishes.
Beer can be used to prepare any number of Thanksgiving dishes including the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, sweet potatoes, gravy, cranberries, and even pecan pie.
Regular potatoes, which can be both rich and creamy or sweet (or both!), are nicely prepared with an IPA or pale ale. As stated above, the hoppy character of these beers can balance the sweetness and richness of a dish. The flavors in sweet potatoes and yams, on the other hand, will be accentuated by a malty beer such as an alt beer or dubbel because yams are a little sweeter than regular potatoes, but still have a very earthy flavor.
Stuffing can be prepared in a number of ways because the bread absorbs whatever flavors the ingredients contain. You can make a rich stuffing to go with a more simple entree, or a simple stuffing to go with a rich entree. In general, you’ll want to stick with maltier beers when making stuffing (examples: brown ale, ESB, bock) because a hoppy beer will only intensify when cooked and reduced, and the bread will absorb most of the hop bitterness.
Perhaps the most common way to prepare veggies with beer is the beer-batter them. However, fried foods can be a little too rich for Thanksgiving, along with all the other big flavors of the meal. Depending on how you like your veggies prepared, you could make a light “sauce” with beer, vinegar, butter and some other seasonings to toss with almonds and blanched veggies (I suggest green beans).
When preparing the gravy, throw in a little bit of a mostly-malty beer, with a slight hop-kick to blend well with the earthy yet rich flavors of gravy.
The light flavor of cranberries, with their touch of bitterness, are well complimented with a light wit or wheat beer. Try and find a beer with some spices like clove and nutmeg, and also light enough that no malt or hop characters dominate the flavor.
Turkey can be prepared in so many different ways, and beer can aid in it’s preparation. Just remember, the longer you cook something in beer, the more the beer is reduced and the flavors shine through. If you’re preparing a recipe that involves cooking the turkey for a long time, I suggest using a lighter beer, like a Hefeweizen, rather than a stout or a predominantly hoppy beer.
While you still might think it sounds crazy, beer in pie is delicious. Definitely go for a big-flavored, malty beer, with some spices or chocolately qualities, and very little hops.
If you’re interested in trying to incorporate beer into some of your Thanksgiving dishes, but you aren’t quite sure where to start, check out the Homebrew Chef’s (Sean Paxton) website. After looking at his site, I’ve decided to make Roasted Garlic IPA Mashed Potatoes for my Thanksgiving dish, with some Drake’s IPA:
If you aren’t going to incorporate beer into your dishes, you can always just drink it (or do both!). Being as it is the season to spread holiday cheer, I’m going to turn that cheer into rosy cheeks, and bring some Drake’s Jolly Rodger, Denogginizer and a growler of our George Brett Sour Ale. They should pair nicely with the big, flavorful dishes of a Thanksgiving feast.
While I know I’ve gone into some serious depth about beer and Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving is one of my most favorites times of the year. Family and friends coming together, lots of home-cooked meals, colder weather, and some craft beer to warm us up. Yes, I am very thankful for all of that!
Cheers ’til next time!