Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cooking with Beer

Hi there!

In a tip of the hat to the original "bachelor cook" concept upon which this blog was founded, I'd like to take a look at what has been an essential ingredient to my own cooking since the mid-90s: BEER! As I've discussed on numerous occasions in these "pages", beer has come into its own in recent years as more than just fuel for frat parties and football watching, with brewpubs like Mill Street who make their own beer and cook with it, and beer-themed restaurants like Brothers Beer Bistro that treat beer with the same respect as other "high end" restos treat wine.

But when it comes right down to it, my most primal memory of cooking with beer is standing over a frying pan with a piece of meat, pouring a bit of suds in the pan to add flavour and de-glaze. Heck, even when making a stir-fry I'd usually use beer as the cooking liquid/marinade (as seen in this archaic "Dude, Cook!" post). And of course, no chili is worth making unless it has a good whack of beer in it.

With the current resurgence of craft brewing in Canada, the ubiquitous so-called Pilsners (Blue, Canadian, etc.) are no longer the norm and there's all manner of different beers out there with unique flavour profiles. As a result, I like to try cooking with some of these more uncommonly flavoured beers.

Luckily, one can find all kinds of wonderfully quirky beers if one looks hard enough. It just so happens that, during wicked good times had at the Festibière de la Gatineau this past Summer, I learned of a speciality beer store deep in the heart of Gatineau called "Broue-ha-ha" ("broue" being French for, um, brew). It sells all kinds of Quebec microbrews and on my birthday I decided to ride out and pick up all kinds of different beers, one of which was Route des épices, which I'd had the pleasure of trying out back in February at Pain Béni in Quebec City. I figured the spicy, rich and peppery quality of the beer would make it fun to cook with, but I still needed to figure out what to make!
Well, luckily, inspiration abounds all the time in this wondrous life we all live. In this case, the fun play of the old Quebecer classic "Hot Chicken" that Kari enjoyed in rabbit form at Joe Beef a month earlier fit the bill perfectly. At first I was thinking I'd mostly follow the standard procedure, using chicken (albeit smoked) and toast and gravy. Ah, but I'd make the gravy using the skin and fat of the chicken, AND the beer! Beer gravy! Totally great idea!

So, with that in mind, it was off to the butcher!

And, of course, as soon as I walked in the door, my fickle mind sensed something even more interesting than chicken. There, quacking out to me, was a lovely duck breast, begging to be smoked. So, it was settled. I would brine and smoke the duck, but instead of searing the duck skin as per the "rules" of cooking duck, I'd trim the fat and skin off the meat before smoking it and use them as the base of my gravy.

With the duck happily brining, I had to come up with other ingredients to round out this happy meal. The "Hot Duck" would be served over toast and topped with peas and gravy as per normal, but I couldn't just eat that. It needed a side to go with it.

Well, traditionally "Hot Chicken" comes with fries, so why mess with tradition? Of course in my case, I'd make sweet potato fries and since I was going with a 'cooking with beer' theme and happened to notice bottles of Beau's Night-Märzen Oktoberfest Lager at the LCBO, I figured I'd whip up some sort of dipping sauce for the fries using the Night-Märzen. I also happened on a shop selling Irish cheddar, so it all pretty much came together quite naturally.

The all-important liquid ingredients in today's feast.

So, with recipes in brain and ingredients in hand, it was time to cook this mess of tasty up!

WARNING: There is nothing healthy about this. Except maybe the peas.

Smoked "Hot Duck" with "Route des épices" Beer Gravy


- 1-1 1/2 pound duck breast

- Trim the skin and fat off the duck breast and set aside in a ziploc in the fridge before brining. If I wasn't using the skin and fat for the gravy, I'd keep them on the duck to help retain moisture while smoking, but in this case the gravy is as much a centrepiece of the dish as the meat itself.


- 6 cups water
- 2 cups apple juice
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp smoked paprika

- Whisk all ingredients together in a non-reactive container, ensuring salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Submerge duck breast into brine and ensure it stays submerged by covering with a small plate or other weight. Brine for around 12 hours.
- Once you remove the duck breast from the brine, rinse well in cold water and pat dry.

Brining does discolour the meat a little, but it'll look fine once smoked. The little pink area here is a spot where air got trapped under the plate, so that small patch didn't soak in the brine.

Smoking the Duck

Duck doesn't need a whole lot of smoking time, about 3-4 hours at 225-250 degrees Fahrenheit. I'd read quite a few posts complaining about how the exterior of the meat dries out too quickly when smoking, but I found that was not a problem after I wrapped the meat in foil for the final hour of smoking.

Now, while duck breast is generally supposed to be served medium-rare, with the middle being a deep purple colour, in this case the smoking process cooks the meat right through and since we're smothering it in gravy, the meat can be a little less rare and tender.

Keep the duck breast warm by wrapping in foil and keeping in a 200 degree F oven while making/finishing the gravy.



- Skin and fat from duck breast (see above)
- 1 tsp unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sliced button or cremini mushrooms
- 2 tbsp minced onion
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 cup "Route des épices" beer
- pinch each of salt, pepper, rosemary, oregano and smoked paprika
- 1 tsp corn starch
- 2 tbsp water
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1 tbsp molasses

- In a saucepan, melt butter and sauté mushrooms, garlic and onions for 10 minutes at medium-high heat.
- In another saucepan, render duck fat and skin on medium heat.
- Once fat has rendered, transfer mushrooms, garlic and onions into the duck fat. Before doing this, you might want to remove the cooked bits of skin. They get kind of chewy and don't really add anything to the gravy. I didn't do this and it didn't bother me, so it's up to you.
- Add beer and seasonings and cook down at medium heat for about 10-15 minutes.
- Combine corn starch and water to make a roux (thickener).
- Whisk in roux, stirring constantly and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Add maple syrup and molasses and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Bubblin' its way to tasty.

It was after adding the roux that I made an important discovery about cooking with strong, hops-forward beer: that stuff can be really bitter! My gravy, which I'd expected to be rich and delicious, was almost unpalatably bitter. So, what to do? Well, sweet is usually a counter to bitter, so to the Sweetener-mobile! I decided on the spot to add a good whack of maple syrup, which countered the bitterness well, but the gravy needed an extra push over the cliff, so I threw in molasses as well. This resulted in a sweeter-than-expected gravy, but how would it taste once I put it all together? We'll see!

Peas and Toast

- In the last 10 minutes of making gravy, toast two slices of dark rye/pumpernickel bread to desired toastiness.
- Steam 1 cup frozen peas in 1/2 cup boiling water for 4-5 minutes and drain.

Putting It All Together!

- Slice duck breast into about 1/3 cm thick pieces.
- Using two dinner plates, place a piece of toast on each plate.

Ready for a gravy bath!

- Next, ladle gravy over the toast and duck. Be generous.
- Finally, top with peas and serve!


Dinner time!

So, how was it? Well, kinda delicious! The duck was succulent and tender and is really freakin' good smoked! The gravy was a little more bitter than I'd have liked, but that was balanced by the maple and molasses to make all the flavours combine well, with a nice earthy undertone from the mushrooms. The peas added a fun crunch and burst of something resembling nutrition.

In the end, the addition of sweetness in the gravy actually made it better! As with most smoked meats, like ribs, a sweet sauce is a good counterbalance to the smoky/salty meat flavour. However, the beer choice was a bit of a dud. Next time, I'll use a much less hoppy beer. Maybe a mild stout?

Sweet Potato Fries with Irish Cheddar/Night-Märzen Dip


- 2-3 large sweet potatoes, cut into fries

- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
- Rinse the potatoes in water and dry well. The Internet suggested I try coating them in corn starch to help make them crispy, but really, that was an unnecessary step.
- Spread sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, turning halfway through.


- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup grated Irish cheddar (or extra-old cheddar)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup Night-Märzen beer, or other flavourful Oktoberfest-style lager

- Mix all ingredients together and bake in oven-proof dish at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 8-10 minutes or until top is golden and bubbly.

Note to self, corn starch doth not crispier fries make...
In the case of the dip, the bitter flavour of the beer was a bit more subdued, but also worked really well with the sharpness of the cheddar and creaminess of the mayo. The fries were meh-ish, but really, what are fries but simply a vehicle for some sort of saucy, tasty goodness?

And there you have it, my experiment in cooking with more interesting beers. The end result wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it taught me some culinary adaptation skills and a lesson in ingredient selection. In this case, just because you love to drink a certain beer, doesn't mean it'll be the best for cooking.

Til next time, stay tasty San Diego!

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