There are a couple of ways to look at cooking with beer.
• The earthy brew adds deep background flavor to long-cooked dishes such as stews and roasts.
• Forget depth; put that beer taste front and center. Yes, that is beer in the ice cream. And the dip, too.
Which way you lean likely has to do with how much you enjoy beer. Or, at least, what kind you prefer. A stout Guinness, which I experimented with in honor of St. Patrick's Day, will leave a much stronger taste than a lighter pilsner.
In fact, Triple Threat Beer-Cheese Spread nearly tastes like a pint from the tap. Slather it on a sturdy cracker or even grilled hamburgers. Keep it away from the kids; it's boozy.
The most popular way to cook with beer arguably adds little flavor to the final product. Beer Can Chicken, a novelty dish in my view, involves barbecuing a whole chicken while it sits upright on a nearly full can of beer. The beer, as it heats and evaporates, is said to flavor the meat and keep it moist.
But other than this delightfully quirky application, why cook with beer at all?
Well, sometimes it's just fun to do something different. Plus, beer has some admirable qualities that bring out the best in other ingredients.
Because beer is made from grain, most commonly malted barley, it pairs well with many ingredients, especially beef, lamb, strong cheeses, mustard, onions and, believe it or not, chocolate and ginger. Beer can tenderize tough cuts of meat, which makes it good in marinades, and helps keep baked goods moist. All this while adding interesting flavor.
Of the three recipes I tested, two showed off the Guinness handsomely and the third swallowed the flavor whole. The strong beer was not readily evident in Irish Beef Stew, melding seamlessly into the rich dish. The inexpensive stew beef was tender, but this may have happened anyway with the two-hour cooking time. Still, I have made a similar recipe with red wine, and the beer version does have a more muscular feel.
I liked the Triple Threat Beer-Cheese Spread, but admit it's an acquired taste, thanks to the strong Guinness stout and caraway seeds. It could easily be toned down by using a lighter beer, such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or even Rolling Rock. The other of-age drinker at my house wasn't wild about it.
Guinness Stout Ice Cream is the sort of dessert I like to make if only for the wide-eyed response. (I get the same thing from asparagus ice cream.) The beer is simmered and reduced to make a thick, dark, syrupy liquid. It's strong.
When paired with the sweet custard base, the nearly bitter syrup provides an interesting balance. It's the kind of sweet that you might only want a small taste of, but accompanied with a small scoop of chocolate and another of vanilla it makes a winning St. Patrick's Day dessert. In another seasonal twist, I added chopped Thin Mint cookies, a nod to the Girl Scouts' current fund-raising efforts.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.