Beer increasingly prevalent as a food ingredient

By Randi Alu

In Pittsburgh, beer isn’t relegated to just being a drink — it can also encompass other… In Pittsburgh, beer isn’t relegated to just being a drink — it can also encompass other aspects of a meal..

With such an easily identifiable and complex flavor, beer can give foods a distinct quality  — one that fits the character of Pittsburgh. From the beer cheese sauce in your appetizer to that beer-infused ice cream dessert, local chefs are experimenting with countless unconventional ways to experience the drink.

Cooking with beer can be easy and add quite a bit of flavor. According to Chef Odette Smith-Ransome, a Pitt alumna who teaches at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, “It has a lot of different components and it all comes in one bottle. You can play with it, too.”

As for the popularity of the process, “In the United States we’re just starting to touch on it. A

lot of European countries have been doing it forever. The Germans have always paired beer and

food. Now we have all these really great little micro-breweries around,” Smith-Ransome said.

Local restaurants have been doing just that. As part of a partnership with Church Brew Works on Liberty Avenue, Dave and Andy’s makes ice cream using the brewery’s beer ingredients.

“We provide Dave and Andy’s with our wort. They incorporate it into the ice cream,” Jason Marrone, executive chef at Church Brew Works, said in an e-mail.

Wort is the component in beer that ferments to make the drink alcoholic. This sweet liquid, which comes from the mashing of grains, is not yet fermented when used in the ice cream sold at Dave and Andy’s and Church Brew Works. So the ice cream can’t get you drunk, but it’s tasty like beer nonetheless.

In the words of Dave and Andy’s manager Andrea Bianco, “It’s beer before it’s alcohol.” In other words, beer ingredients create the flavoring for ice cream like Vanilla Bean Golden Ale before they become alcoholic.

The other two flavors that Dave and Andy’s makes are Chocolate Bell Tower Malt and Golden Ale Espresso Chip.

“We use light wort (celestial gold, pale ale) for lighter ice creams and dark wort (dunkel, stout) for dark ice creams,” Marrone said

Bianco said both Dave and Andy’s and Church Brew Works benefit from the ice cream making. “We make [the ice cream] and then they buy it off of us to sell in their restaurant,” she said.

Church Brew Works’ menu includes several beer-infused , including Beer Cheese Sauce, which is composed of Pipe Organ Pale Ale, chicken stock, cheddar cheese, carrots, celery and onions.

“The beer cheese sauce is a perfect fit for a Philly-style cheesesteak,” Marrone said.

The sauce does not contain alcohol because when it’s cooked to become thicker,  the alcohol evaporates. Smith-Ransome believes that cheese and beer are a good chemical pairing.

“You can take shredded cheese and pour beer over it, and the beer will actually dissolve the cheese,” the chef said.

Using techniques such as that one, you can take the power of cooking with beer into your very own home.

“It’s just like cooking with wine. [Beer] has a great flavor in and of itself, and it has really good chemistry with food. Beer is really a tenderizer for meat. Marinating in beer is also good — just add your other seasonings to it,” Smith-Ransome said.

An example of this process is demonstrated in the Pitt alumna’s “Pittsburgh Barbecue.”

Her barbecue involves taking a “lesser” meat such as a round or chuck and placing it in a pan after seasoning each side with salt and pepper. She then pours 12 ounces of Heinz ketchup and 12 ounces of Iron City Beer over the steak and cooks it for two hours.

Beer battering is another popular method of working  the drink into food.

Beer is used in batter for texture rather than taste. “Regular batter is leavened with baking soda or baking powder. With beer batter, the leavening is the beer. The effervescence of the beer makes it light and crispy,” Smith-Ransome said.

Leavening is the chemical component in bread products that produces bubbles in order to make them rise. Chemical leavenings include baking soda and baking powder, but a natural leavening is yeast. Because beer contains yeast as well as preformed bubbles, it makes a good leavening agent.

Different kinds of beer are suited for different recipes.

“A Belgian ale is great sorbet. You freeze it, essentially like a champagne sorbet. It’s a great palette cleanser, especially for a German dinner,” Smith-Ransome said.

Using her barbecue as an example, Smith-Ransome explained that a dark beer would produce more of a molasses flavor, while a light beer would bring out more of the tomato notes. Light beers are called “light” for a reason — their strength of flavor is, well, lighter — and the bubbles are smaller, Smith-Ransome said.

“I can see taking that original two-part recipe and making a wide variety of different end products,” the chef said.

Experimenting is a great way to experience new flavor combinations.

Beer is an important aspect of Pittsburgh culture. “You know that saying about Pittsburgh: We’re a beer town with a football problem  — it’s true. Back when the mills were here, everyone’s favorite drink was a Boilermaker — beer with a shot in it. It’s our demographic and heritage around here,” Smith-Ransome said.