With wine, the rules are fairly clear: Cook beef bourguignon with Burgundy or cabernet sauvignon, poach fish and chicken in chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. But what kind of beer would you use for a dish of veal consomme with bleu cheese?
If you're Bill Aydlett, chef at Sisson's restaurant and brew pub, you use Dos Equis, a Mexican beer in which the tangy flavor of hops is not predominant. Suppose the dish is roast duck? Kreick Lambic, a lush, almost wine-y brew from Belgium. Grilled salmon with beer salsa? A hearty ale, such as the house Stockade Amber.
It's a subject into which a lot of thought -- and a lot of beer -- has been poured, by Mr. Aydlett and by Hugh Sisson, who's the beer brewer at the restaurant he runs with his family in South Baltimore.
"We've been experimenting over the last six months to a year in cooking with beer," Mr. Sisson said at a recent "culinary showcase" dinner. It is hardly a new technique: The English, he noted, have produced such pairings as beer and cheese soup "forever"; the Belgians, with their great variety of brews, have probably had the most success in mating beer and food.
There are plenty of reasons to continue the tradition -- not just that the South Baltimore Brewing Co. microbrewery is attached to Sisson's restaurant. Cooking with beer is much like cooking with wine: The flavor of the barley, hops or grapes gives an extra fillip to the taste of a dish. And, "Some people are intimidated by wine," he says.
Still, it's not quite as simple as pouring a bottle of Guinness into the stew, or a can of Coors into the apple pie. The astringency of the hops, which may be what you love in the beer, has to be taken into account when you're cooking.
Reducing the liquid -- a common technique with wine -- can bring out the hoppy bitterness of beer. His experiments have convinced Mr. Aydlett that there's no way to counteract the hops with other liquids, such as water or stock. "Beer is just stubborn," Mr. Aydlett says. "It stays what it was."
That's why it's important to match the beer with the food. The astringent taste will be fine in piquant dishes such as cheese soup or salsa; but a sweeter, maltier brew will work better in sauces.
"Cooking with beer is great," Mr. Aydlett says, "but you just want to flavor the food."
He suggests experimenting carefully, starting with just a little bit of the flavoring brew. "You can't substitute, across the board, any beer for any wine, any stock, any liquid in a recipe. But if you have something you feel would be a good flavor, give it a try."
And when it works -- as it does in the dishes developed by Mr. Sisson and Mr. Aydlett -- nothing could seem more natural.
They suggest adopting the "Rule of the Three Cs," propounded by Dane Wells, of the Victoria Inn in Cape May, N.J., and using beer to cut, complement or contrast the flavors in food. For instance, cut the flavor of a rich, creamy sauce, such as lobster with cream sauce, with a beer that is slightly bitter; complement spicy foods with spicy ale; and contrast bland foods, such as oysters, with a robust brew, such as stout.
And don't stop when you get to dessert. Mr. Aydlett's repertoire includes a pilsner zabaglione with a delicious tart-sweet taste that perfectly complements fresh fruit.
Mr. Sisson is still scouring beer aficionado publications and cookbooks -- it isn't easy getting the best Belgian ones translated from the Flemish, he laments -- for recipes that use beer in tasty new ways. He wants to give the restaurant a "stable" of 40 or 50 dishes that can vary with the season, with beer production, with customer tastes.
"We don't claim to have written the final chapter" on the subject of beer in food," he says, "but we're working on it."
Here are three of Mr. Aydlett's recipes, plus some others that illustrate the techniques of cooking with beer.
Grilled Canadian salmon with ale salsa
2 red bell peppers
2 poblano peppers
2 Anaheim peppers
4 large jalapeno peppers
2 green bell peppers
2 red onions
1 bunch of green onions
2 ripe tomatoes
12 ounces hearty ale (see note)
8 filets of Canadian salmon
Grill all the peppers on a grill or under the broiler until the skins are charred black and can be easily removed under running water. Remove the seeds and stems and cut into fine strips. Cut the green onions into fine dice; cut the onions into thin strips. Peel and seed the tomatoes (skewer each tomato on a fork and dip in boiling water for 30 seconds; skin will then strip right off) and cut into 1/2 -inch chunks. Put all vegetables into a bowl with the ale and let sit approximately 12 hours. Correct seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Grill the salmon to taste. Remember that the longer it cooks, the drier it will be; you might want to leave it slightly opaque in the center. Serve topped with the salsa.
(Note: Mr. Aydlett uses Sisson's Amber Stockade ale in the salsa. It is available in half-gallon "growlers" at the brewpub for $12; refills are $7.)
Roast duck with Kreick sauce