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Your Favorite Beer May Become Your Favorite Ingredient

Peter Ogburn for NPR

Craft beer is having its moment. Microbreweries and craft beer operations are thriving, and weekend warriors spend hours in the garage honing recipes and sharing test batches. Beer is what friends drink when they get together. It's fun. It's accessible. You rarely see people sipping glasses of wine at a tailgate or a backyard barbecue.

Wine is what people think of for fine cooking — steaks with red wine reduction and mussels with white wine sauce. However, beer has a place on the stove, too.

In fact, Steve Brockwell, a brewer for Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., says that beer can play with food better than wine. "It has more ingredients. It makes it more multifaceted. Especially if you have the ability to manipulate these ingredients in a certain way to coax out specific flavors."

Ben Clark, Flying Dog's head brewer, adds, "You've got barley, water, hops and yeast. You're getting aromatics out of malt, hops, yeast, and even your water quality can make a difference in the way a beer tastes."

And they know their beer. Flying Dog Brewery was one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, growing from a small operation in the early 1990s into a juggernaut. Flying Dog beer now is available in 30 states and Western Europe.

While wine adds a complex acidity to a dish, beer can add a more robust, earthy punch. The main difference between the libations is that wine is made from fermenting fruit, usually grapes, which produces alcohol. Beer gets its alcohol content from brewing grains, usually hops and barley.

Like wine, beer comes in many different varieties. It can be light as it is in a lager or pilsner. It can be dark and heavy in a stout or a porter. The key to using beer successfully in cooking is to select the right beer. For crab chowder, a crisp wheat beer adds a bright flavor without overpowering the seafood. For a chocolate cake, a strong, dark stout adds a deep richness that you've never tasted in a chocolate cake before.

There's a spectrum of beers out there, so before you cook with any of these, make sure to drink a cold one first. When you cook with booze, the alcohol cooks off, leaving you with the reduced essence of the product you began with. So if you don't like it in the glass, chances are you won't like it in your food.

Corn and Crab Chowder with Wheat Beer

In the kitchen, acid is essential. I always have some form of citrus around to help brighten up a dish. While chowders tend to be heavier soups, the addition of wheat beer lifts the soup up. This recipe, adapted from Flying Dog Brewery's cookbook, calls for chicken stock, but I used some lobster stock that I had kicking around my freezer, which made a wonderful substitute.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4-5 scallions, chopped

2-3 celery stalks, finely diced

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons bacon drippings (or vegetable oil)

1/2 cup wheat beer

1/2 cup chicken stock

2 cups fresh corn, taken off the cob (can substitute frozen)

1/2 pound lump crabmeat, picked to make sure there are no shell fragments

1 tablespoon seafood seasoning

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

4 tablespoons butter, melted

4 tablespoons flour, sifted

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium-sized pot, saute onions, garlic and celery in bacon drippings.

Add beer, stock, corn, seafood seasoning, crushed red pepper, parsley and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until corn is cooked through. Add crabmeat to the mix.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and add the flour to make a roux. Whisk until butter and flour are incorporated and cook for about 3 minutes to remove the raw flour taste. When cooked, add the roux to the soup, bring to a simmer and serve hot.

Welsh Rarebit

There has been a lot of debate about the origins of this dish. One story is that Welsh peasants weren't allowed to eat rabbits and created this dish to help fill their dinner table. It certainly feels like peasant cooking. It takes what's on hand to create a dish that comes together in perfect harmony. Bonus: It goes a long way in curing a hangover.

/ Peter Ogburn for NPR
Peter Ogburn for NPR

Makes 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup flour

1 cup dark, strong beer (porter or stout), at room temperature

1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Black pepper, to taste

Thick slices of rustic bread

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and add the flour. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring to prevent it from burning. Slowly add in the beer until you have a thick but smooth sauce. Add the grated cheese and stir until melted. This sauce will be a gluey, gloppy paste. (A delicious gluey, gloppy paste.) Mix in the mustard and Worcestershire sauce and season well with black pepper.

Turn the broiler on high heat. Lay out bread slices on a broiling pan and spoon the sauce onto the bread. Spread it out evenly over the bread. It's OK if it spills over the sides of the bread slice. Put the bread slices under the broiler until the cheesy sauce turns golden brown.

Beef Carbonnade

This is pot roast on steroids. As the weather begins to turn chillier, this homey meal warms the house and fills the air with amazing smells. I'd suggest starting this dish, putting some beer in the fridge and inviting some friends over. By the time your brews are cold, dinner will be ready.

/ Peter Ogburn for NPR
Peter Ogburn for NPR

Makes 8 servings

4 pounds chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 tablespoons butter

3 medium yellow onions, sliced about 1/4-inch thick

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups chicken or beef stock

1 1/2 cups (12-ounce bottle) Belgian beer

4 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bay leaves

Season beef well with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat until hot. Brown the meat, working in batches, for about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the browned meat to a bowl.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to the same pot in which you browned the meat and melt over medium heat. Add onions and plenty of salt and cook until onions are browned. This should take about 15 minutes. Add flour and stir until onions are evenly coated and the flour is lightly browned. Slowly stir in the broth and scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add beer, thyme, bay leaves and beef. Be sure to add any of the delicious juices that have collected with the beef. Bump the heat up to medium-high until the pot comes to a slow boil, then drop it down to low and let it simmer for 3 hours, or until the beef is fork tender.

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle the stew into a shallow bowl. I like to serve this with a side of Belgian-style fries, to help clean up some of the delicious sauce.

Chocolate Stout Cake

Stout beer is a heavy, dark liquid that is a perfect complement to a chocolate cake. Its complex flavor adds depth to an already rich dessert. Serve this warm with some vanilla ice cream on the side. If you're going to drink beer with it (why not?), I'd suggest drinking the same one you cooked with.

Makes 1 cake

2 cups packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

3 large eggs

14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks), melted, but not hot

3/4 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

12 ounces stout beer

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 cup (3 ounces) cocoa

1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Thoroughly butter a 12-cup Bundt pan

In a large bowl, mix brown sugar, granulated sugar, salt and eggs and whisk until combined. Add in butter, sour cream, vanilla and stout and whisk all the ingredients together.

In a small bowl, whisk flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and baking powder. Combine all the ingredients and mix well until a batter forms.

Pour the batter into the buttered pan and bake, on the middle rack of the oven, for 45 minutes to an hour. Once you insert a toothpick into the middle of the cake and it comes out clean, it's done.

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. When cool enough to handle the pan, turn upside down onto a plate or cake dish. Before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar.

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Peter Ogburn