IF YOU AIN'T CHEATIN', YA AIN'T TRYIN' - These are words to live by for any chef looking to give themselves an edge behind the grill, or BBQ for that matter (I distinguished the two because grilling is not barbecuing, but that's an argument to be had over a proper pint). What matters is the finished product, and any self-respecting grill-master knows you can't just slap a cold piece of meat on the grill and expect Michelin Star quality. For the best results, prep-work is key, and that includes everything from brining, marinating, rubbing, seasoning, injecting, mopping, and saucing. Naturally, beer is often a popular choice, but do you really know how to harness the power of beer in your cooking? How do you know you are doing it right? We are going to make sure you don't make any rookie mistakes.
First, let's start with the obvious: you really don't have to use expensive beer. This isn't wine. The saying typically goes something like this, "Don't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink.". Hmm. Im calling BS on that one. Clearly you aren't looking to pull the same nuanced flavors out of a wine getting mixed into food as you are while quaffing a glass, and I would argue that's even more true with beer, so grab whatever you got in your fridge and skip the $30 Belgian sour infusion.
Second, this isn't going to be a comprehensive guide. These methods are well established and adequately covered on their own, so let's talk about the basics so you can crack open a cold one and get grilling tonight.
- BRINING -
Brining is by definition quite simple - it's the process of soaking or preserving in salty water. A pickle, for example, swims in a brine. What does that do for meat though? Salt flavorizes, tenderizes, and moisturizes the meat. I'm not going to go into the science because A) it would be gross plagiarism and B) I am not a scientist. For more on the topic for all you food nerds, you can read more via the always credible and informative AmazingRibs.com. Here is where most people go wrong. Simply soaking meat in beer is going to do next to nothing for it. First of all beer has a negligible amount of sodium. Certainly not enough to make a material difference in the tenderness of the meat. If you want to incorporate beer into a wet brine, use it instead of water to make your brining solution. Add any additional flavors you want, plus the right amount of salt, and you have yourself a tasty and effective beer brine.
- MARINATING -
Often confused with brining, marinating can serve to accomplish similar things as brining, mainly because sauces used to marinate often contain a similar ingredient list to a good brine, but with more sugar, leading to a thicker viscosity and hence clinging better to the food, so the marinade flavor becomes caramelized onto the surface of the meat. Basically, whereas a brine is primarily used to tenderize, allowing for different flavors to be added later during the cooking process, a marinade contains the seasoning/flavors desired without the need for additional flavoring methods. Want to add some beer to your marinade? Pour a can into some BBQ sauce and reduce it down to thicken it up. Bam! Beer marinade.
- INJECTING -
I'm not going to lie, if a lot of the info in this article is news to you, you probably shouldn't be injecting. Sorry. Its fairly advanced relative to other flavorizing methods for a few reasons:
It is somewhat technical to do correctly - Actually getting a feel for where to penetrate the muscle, how much to inject, and how many times to inject a piece of meat takes practice.
Most people inject too much - I am guilty of this myself and what happens (especially if you don't inject cross-grain) is you end up pumping the meat full of juice in pockets that are released upon biting into it like a gusher candy. It's nasty unless you particularly enjoy chicken broth shots with dinner.
It's not sanitary - If you are dealing with poultry you have a needle to sterilize now, and potentially salmonella-laden brine shooting all over the counter when you draw out the needle.
But for the livestock sadists reading this that absolutely have to do it, the approach is no different than the brining or marinating directions. Go easy, use light beer, and sub for water where you can. Just don't forget the salt.
- MOPPING & SAUCING -
Not only is this probably the easiest method to infuse beer flavor into your feast, but the results are generally the most predictable since the sauce is the first thing that hits your mouth and is the least damaged by heat and cooking. Like a marinade, simply stir some of your favorite beer into your marinade and reduce to thicken if necessary. Then paint on your sauce and go to town!
- OTHER USES -
There are a few other novel ways to use beer that are worth mentioning.
Steaming - Have you ever cooked a rack of ribs where you were urged to pour a can of coke into the bottom of a foil pouch to "steam" the flavor into the meat? This method is known as the 'Texas Crutch' and it's used by competition pitmasters all over to keep meat tender and moist during long cooks. Want to add some extra moisture to your next Brisket? Try adding a bit of beer instead. Keep in mind that soda is really sweet which enhances the flavor of the meat. Try to use something with heavier flavors and a bit of sweetness to stand up to the richness of whatever you are cooking.
Beer Can Chicken - Similar to the Texas crutch, Beer Can Chicken essentially steams the bird from the inside out. How does it work? Open a can of beer and cram it up the foul's backside. It reduces cook time and the results are incredibly moist. Full disclosure there are some pros that frown upon this cooking method for health and safety reasons, but mostly this is a recipe applauded by the world over, and the gold standard for tender breast. Try it with a good solid craft beer like Cali Creamin' Creamsicle.
Some final thoughts...Like many things, less is more. Don't get too crazy. Think about the flavors you are about to introduce. For example, do you really want the floral and piney hop flavors of a double IPA in a Thanksgiving Turkey? You will never live that one down. Plan out your next session and start easy. Take notes and experiment from there. There is a whole world of flavors to explore.
Tags: Cooking With Beer, BBQ Tips