When he was hired as the opening chef for Original 13 Ciderworks in Kensington, Will Rogers was asked if he was a "cider person."

"I said, 'To be honest, I don't know if I am,' " he said. "Since then, I've changed my mind significantly."

As the craft-booze craze has expanded, more American drinkers are embracing hard cider, not just as an alternative to beer, but as a beverage that offers delicious characteristics in its own right. With an unsurpassed balance of fruit, acidity, and sugars, it's also an ideal cooking ingredient that can be seamlessly slipped into any number of sweet and savory dishes.

During his tenure in the Original 13 kitchen, Rogers has worked the stuff into strawberry shortcake biscuits, caramelized onions, tempura-battered shrimp, and coconut milk curry. Basically, cider can be applied ounce for ounce in place of any other alcohol, especially fruitier beers and drier white wines. It works just as well when it's gone flat, so it's worth holding on to that half-finished bottle for tomorrow's braise.

However, a really complex craft product might be wasted in a sauté pan, said Risa McKenzie of Bella Vista's Hale & True Cider.

"The ones I really love to drink, including our own, are probably not the ones I'd want to cook with," she said. "You'd lose a lot of the subtleties and tasting notes. I'd rather use a plain dry cider, basically just fermented apple juice, for cooking."

For poaching fish and mussels, look for ciders with the characteristics and dryness of white wines.

"It can have a similar brightness, though you won't find the same minerality as in wine," said Joe Getz, head cidermaker at Kurant in Fishtown.

In a braise — whether for chicken, pork, lamb, or sausage — cider can be used both as liquid to steam and tenderize the protein and to deglaze the pan after, forming the basis for a gravy. Riffing on the traditional applewood smoke, Rogers uses cider to sous-vide pork belly for bacon.

The acidity of cider helps cut the richness of cream sauces. By the same token, it adds a sweeter note to vinaigrettes and mustards. Rogers dresses a warm salad of roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled shallot, and julienned apple with a vinaigrette that combines apple cider vinegar with reduced hard cider.

As in beer breads and beer batters, cider can add a bubbly lift, tender texture, and extra layer of flavor to loaves and fried foods. That adds to its appeal among the gluten-avoiding set.

"A great thing about cider is that it's gluten-free. We can make fish and chips for people who can't ordinarily enjoy battered foods," Rogers said.

Delicate apple flavor means a cider-based dessert will never be too cloying. Indeed, a granita and gelatin or even ice cream flavored with cider will be welcome after a rich meal. Over the summer, Rogers made freeze pops from cider, and he's developing a creamsicle mashup for next year.

Making apple cider doughnuts.
Matthew Septimus
Making apple cider doughnuts.

Apple cider doughnuts — that staple of pick-your-own orchards everywhere — taste equally delicious with sweet and hard ciders. Cider also marries well with caramel for puddings, frostings, and sauces.

If you've never had it, reduced cider — boiled cider to New Englanders — will be your new favorite thing. Simply boil a gallon of sweet or hard cider down into a syrup. (It takes more than an hour to get truly thick, and will need to reach 220 to 225 degrees on a candy thermometer.) From there, it can be used for drizzling over pancakes, sweet potatoes, ice cream, or anywhere you'd add a dash of honey or maple syrup.

Also in cocktails. Think sangria, Moscow Mules, Dark and Stormys, and Sazeracs.

"At the end of the day, though cider gets compared to beer a lot, it's really its own thing," McKenzie said. "We're still figuring out what that means and the best applications for it, either for eating or drinking."

The future is bright for hard cider, especially in Philly, where chefs are just getting started.

"I'm really having fun with it," Rogers says. "It's always interesting to work with a new ingredient and see what you can do with it."

Brussels Sprouts with Cider Vinaigrette

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

For the Pickled Shallots

1 cup thinly sliced shallots

1 cup apple cider vinegar

¼ cup water

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon peppercorns

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

½ star anise pod

½ clove

pinch of red pepper flakes

For the Cider Vinaigrette

1 pint Sir Charles Hard Cider

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

salt and pepper to taste

For the Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise

1 apple, cored and julienned, set in water with a ½ teaspoon of lemon juice until needed

salt and pepper

vegetable oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. Set shallots in a medium size bowl. Combine cider vinegar, water, salt, brown sugar, peppercorns, bay leaf, coriander, star anise, clove and red pepper flakes in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Pour over shallot, and set aside.
  2. Make vinaigrette. Add cider to a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue to cook until cider is reduced to ¼ cup. Whisk reduced cider with vegetable oil and cider vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Heat oven to 400°. In a large, oven-proof sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil over high heat. When the oil is hot, add Brussels sprouts to the pan, cut-side down. Cook for 3 minutes without disturbing them, and then transfer the entire pan into the oven. Cook for approximately 5 more minutes in the oven.
  4. Transfer cooked Brussels sprouts to a large bowl. Add julienned apples and 2 tablespoons pickled shallot to the mixing bowl. Whisk (or shake) vinaigrette to emulsify and add ¼ cup to the mixing bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

—Courtesy of Original 13 Ciderworks

Slow-Roasted Leg of Lamb with Rosemary, Honey and Cider Syrup

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 leg of lamb (4-5 pounds), boneless or bone-in

2 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 cloves garlic, sliced into slivers

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons cider syrup (if you can't find commercial boiled syrup, make your own by boiling a gallon of sweet cider until it reaches 220-225 degrees, about 1½ hours)

1 tablespoon honey

1 cup hard cider

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 325. Oil a Dutch oven.
  2. Rub the meat with the salt, cumin and turmeric. Use a narrow, sharp knife to make incisions all over the lamb and slide the garlic slices into the meat. Place the lamb in the Dutch oven.
  3. Combine the rosemary, syrup and honey in a small bowl and blend to make a sticky paste. Spread the paste all over the lamb.
  4. Add ½ cup of the cider to the Dutch over, cover and set it in the oven to cook for 3 hours, or until the meat is done and falling off the bone. Check during the third hour to make sure there is still some liquid in the pan; if necessary, add ¼ cup of water.
  5. Remove the lid from the Dutch oven and cook for another 15 minutes to brown the meat.
  6. Remove the pot from the oven and transfer the lamb to a dish that can catch the juices. Let it rest for 20 minutes, loosely covered with foil.
  7. In the meantime, make a sauce from the drippings. Skim the fat from the roasting juices. Whisk in the remaining ½ cup cider to deglaze the pan. Cook over medium heat until the sauce reduces by a third and seems thick enough to cling nicely to the meat. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired.
  8. Carve the lamb into slices and pour the sauce over it. Garnish with the parsley or cilantro.

—From Ciderhouse Cookbook by Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blum and Andrea Blum (Storey, 2018)

Apple Cider Cake Doughnuts

Yields 6 doughnuts

INGREDIENTS

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 to 3 large egg yolks

1 cup unsweetened or hard apple cider

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

¼ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

DIRECTIONS

  1. Twenty minutes or longer before baking, set an oven rack at the middle level. Set the oven at 350°. Spray a 6 cavity doughnut pan with baking spray with flour. About an hour ahead, set the butter and egg on the counter at room temperature.
  2. In a small saucepan, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat, boil down the apple cider until reduced to 1/3 cup. Cover tightly to prevent further evaporation and allow it to cool to room temperature.
  3. Into a 1 cup or larger measure with a spout, weigh or measure the egg yolks. Add the cooled reduced apple cider and vanilla and whisk until lightly combined.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixed fitted with the flat beater, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt on low speed for 30 seconds.
  5. Add the butter and about ¼ of the egg mixture. Holding the beater in your hand, mash the butter and egg mixture into the flour mixture so that it doesn't jump out of the bowl when beating. Then reattach the beater and mix on low speed until the flour mixture is moistened. Raise the speed to medium and beat for 1½ minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  6. Starting on medium-low speed, gradually add the remaining egg mixture to the batter in two parts, beating on medium speed for 30 seconds after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed, to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure.
  7. Scrape the batter into a disposable pastry bag or reclosable freezer bag. Cut a 1-inch diameter semicircle from the top. Pipe or spoon the prepared batter into the prepared pan, filling each cavity almost to the top, and leaving the center post uncovered.
  8. Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, or until golden brown and a wire cake tester inserted between the center post and sides comes out clean. An instant-read thermometer should read about 203°.
  9. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool the doughnuts for 5 minutes. Invert the doughnuts onto a second wire rack for a few minutes until cool enough to handle. If desired, cut out the centers to make smooth holes.
  10. In a small saucepan on low heat or in a small bowl in the microwave, melt the butter. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar and cinnamon. If there are any lumps, pass it through a fine-mesh strainer.
  11. Brush a doughnut on all sides with melted butter and set it, flat bottom side down, on top of the cinnamon sugar. Spin it around to coat it and then, holding it bottom side down in your hand over the bowl containing the cinnamon sugar, sprinkle the entire top and sides with the topping. Set it on a plate and repeat with remaining doughnuts. When all are coated, use the remaining topping to give a second coating to the tops. To keep the topping crunchy, allow the doughnuts to cool completely before storing.

—Adapted from Rose's Baking Basics by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)