When it’s time to tip a bit of liquid into your skillet to pick up those brown bits and make a quick sauce, you probably reach for wine. It’s a classic ingredient in all manner of steamed, braised, or boiled dishes. But vino is not the only option for enhancing the flavors of food.
In fact, many chefs prefer wine’s humble cousin — beer. With Philly Beer Week upon us, the malty beverage takes center stage in special events, dinners, and talks around the region. It’s a celebration of beer drinking, to be sure, but chefs will also be bringing the foamy stuff out from behind the bar and into the kitchen, where beer becomes a key ingredient in both special menu items and dishes created especially for beer week festivities. Their efforts go way beyond the typical mussels steamed in beer.
To begin the 10-day celebration, Brauhaus Schmitz’s chef Jeremy Nolen will be teaching a class on the subject of cooking with beer on Friday at Cook, near Rittenhouse Square. The nuances of cooking with beer can be complex, but his overall approach is simple. "Any time you might reach for wine or another spirit, you can think about substituting beer," he says.
In the Brauhaus kitchen, beer is a staple ingredient. His schlachtplatte, a hearty, heaping plate of sauerkraut and smoked meats, is steeped in German lager and seasoned with caraway, juniper, and bay leaves. "It’s so important to match the flavor of the beer to the ingredients you’re cooking," says Nolen.
A beer flavored prominently with hops, such as a bitter American IPA, will overwhelm most ingredients as it reduces during cooking. An edge of peppery bitterness, though, is often welcome in raw preparations, such as salad dressings. Beer even finds its way onto the dessert menu at Brauhaus, where a beer and golden raisin sauce recently topped a marzipan tart.
Nolen isn’t the only chef in town whose beer list has overlapped with the dessert course. At Alla Spina, the new Italian-inspired gastropub on North Broad Street, beer and ice cream come together in a boozy take on the affogato, which typically pairs ice cream with a steamy shot of espresso.
"We were serving a chocolate ice cream with a stout, and it had that same contrast of bitter and sweet as the classic affogato," says chef de cuisine Damon Menapace. The milky fior di latte ice cream and fruit lambic affogato currently on the menu is more like a beer-based float. "During beer week, we’ll be experimenting with ice cream and beer shakes," says Menapace.
Scott Schroeder, the chef at South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar, likes to work with the same bold, full-flavored brews that dominate those restaurants’ draft lists. "It can be a challenge to create dishes that stand up to these strong beers," says Schroeder. He has developed a knack for doing so, though, and now he says he actually prefers using beer in his recipes to wine.
Raw oysters are a favorite target for Schroeder; he tops the bivalves with a splash of beer and some raw avocado. "The bubbles cut through the salt of the oyster like a lemon," says Schroeder. "It’s a better match than champagne." He also likes incorporating beers into his seviche specials. Plans for suds-enhanced dishes for Beer Week include a salsa verde perked up with pale ale and beef braised in beer.
Tod Wentz of McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount is also on team beer, in spite of his background in French cooking. "Red wines get so tannic as they reduce," says Wentz. "It overwhelms everything else." Beers, on the other hand, can bring welcome sweet and malty notes, as well as subtle, complex aromas, according to the chef. "Beer brings a rich, rounded quality to simple dishes like boiled crabs," says Wentz. He favors saisons, wheat beers, and porters for his food, and will have them all on hand as he creates beer-based dishes for McCrossen’s forthcoming brewery dinners.
Not every chef feels the need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to cooking with beer. Chef Brian Lofink of Kraftwork in Fishtown, says the kitchen churns out about 130 orders of beer-can chicken every Friday night. It may verge on a culinary cliche, but the dish is the perfect example of why beer is every bit as good an ingredient as wine. A beer steam bath brings much-needed flavor to mild poultry and prevents the meat from drying out, too.
As always, it will be on the menu at Kraftwork during Beer Week, though there will be no festival folderol at this gastropub. "This year we are keeping things low-key. We’ll be a Beer Week oasis," says Lofink. "It’s always beer week here."
But with the city’s hungry beer enthusiasts out in force for the duration of the event, he should probably plan for a few extra orders of that beer-can bird.