Cooking class: Add beer to food, say 'cheers!'

Q:

I'm a beer lover, but I've never used beer in my cooking. Is it a good idea?

Beer adds a rich, earthy flavor to soups and stews that makes them taste like they've been simmering for hours. Beers with a sweet or nutty taste can add depth to desserts. And don't worry about getting drunk: Virtually all the alcohol evaporates during the cooking process.

While some recipes call specifically for beer, many recipes that call for wine can be prepared with a brew — they'll have a more malty, toasty flavor. Just like with wine, you should never cook with a beer that you wouldn't drink. If you don't like the flavor in a cup, chances are it won't appeal to you on a plate.

Different beers pair well with different foods, so it's important to learn the taste differences before you hit the kitchen. Beer can be divided into two main groups: ales and lagers. Ale, the original beer, is brewed in a way that results in fruity, earthy flavors. Lagers make use of more modern brewing systems to be lighter and drier. Each type of beer has a distinctly different flavor. Here is a breakdown of several common types:

. Wheat Beers: Wheat beers are pale, often unfiltered and have fruity, mellow, crisp-edged flavors, well-matched for salads and fish.

. Pale Ale and bitter: Bitter is always served on tap and turns into pale ale once bottled and filtered. Bitter has little carbonation and is usually served slightly colder than room temperature; its crispness cuts beautifully through rich, fatty meats like game.

. Porter: Porter tastes like a combination of stout and pale ale; it's less toasty than stout and less bitter than pale ale, and it picks up the flavors in stews especially well.

. Stout: Stout brings out the flavors in everything from shellfish to stews. Because of its distinct coffee and chocolate notes, it's also perfect for blending into rich desserts.

Q:

I like asparagus, but I am not sure how to prepare it for cooking.

Asparagus, even the thin variety, can have a woody, tough end. No matter how long you cook it, it may still be chewy.

But where to trim an asparagus stalk?

Hold the spear at each end and bend slightly. It will snap naturally and the non-tip end is the woody part. You can discard it or use it to make vegetable stock.

Q:

What yeast should I buy for baking bread?

There are many kinds of yeast, all of which work well for bread. Our recipes call primarily for active dry, as it is readily available and convenient to use. A brief rundown of the types:

. Active dry: You'll usually see this in small packages in the dairy section. It needs to hang out in warm water for a few minutes before use — this wakes the yeast up and gets it ready for your recipe. Check expiration dates, and keep your packets in a cool, dry spot.

. Rapid rise (sometimes called instant): This is a hardy strain of yeast, and it does not need to be hydrated before using. While it doesn't actually rise more rapidly than any other yeast, you get to skip the step of hydrating, making the process a couple of minutes faster. It is also more concentrated than active dry yeast, so you'll get a fuller rise in some recipes than with the same amount of active yeast. We use it in our challah and potato rolls.

. Fresh yeast: This is a favorite of hard-core bakers. As much as we love it, we don't recommend it for our recipes because it's hard to find and needs to be used up pretty quickly once you buy it. If you do have access to fresh yeast, use 0.6 ounces per packet of active dry in any given recipe.

. Sourdough: Sourdough comes from a starter, which is basically an active yeast culture. You can make it on your own (by combining organic flour, water and sugar, and allowing it to ferment) and keep it indefinitely. While it takes longer than yeast, it pays off in flavor.

Times staff and wires

Send questions to Taste section, St. Petersburg Times, 490 First Ave S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 or e-mail to features@sptimes.com. Please put FOOD QUESTION in the subject line.

Cooking class: Add beer to food, say 'cheers!' 04/06/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 7:16pm]

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