Cooking with Winter Beers and Wines

Add some kick and variety to your dishes, whether at home or dining out

Move over, pumpkin spice lattes; it’s time for adult beverage season. As we transition from summer shandies to dark, malty lagers and from crisp white Rieslings to full-bodied reds and sparkling wines, it seems only natural to pair these drinks with winter foods.

But what about cooking with them?

Try something new this winter. Join us on a journey to discover how to cook with winter beers and wines. But first, let’s address one of the most pressing questions many a chef has had to answer: What happens to alcohol while cooking?

It’s conventional wisdom that alcohol burns off when you cook with it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. According to a 1992 study conducted through a contract by the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food, alcohol retention after cooking ranged from 4 to 85 percent.

The percentage difference is attributed to the “heat treatment” or cooking method used. For example, pot roast Milano cooked low and slow with burgundy retained only 4 to 6 percent alcohol, while a Grand Marnier sauce retained most of its alcohol—83 to 85 percent.

Cooking with alcohol is a bit less intuitive than drinking or pairing. So, for guidance on how to cook with beer and wine, we spoke with some local experts—a restauranteur, two chefs and a liquor store owner—on how to properly cook with booze.

Contrast or Complement

Most dishes served at restaurants have been prepared using a splash of alcohol. Both wine and beer are regularly used in dish preparation to deglaze pans, braise or tenderize meat, make a sauce, or add additional flavor to a dish.

In general, there are two ways to go about cooking with beer or wine, “to contrast or complement [a dish],” says Chef Robert Lhulier, principal at Robert Lhulier Cuisine.

First, you can pick a drink that has characteristics that contrast with the flavor of your food. For example, says Lhulier, “a pan-fried rainbow trout in an almond and lemon butter loves an acidic, dry white.” Or, he says, “you can complement a dish, like when a hearty cassoulet calls for an earthy, rich red wine.”

When cooking with beer, it’s as simple as adding it to soup or stew. It can stand up to strong flavors and pairs best with meat, cheese, and strong winter spices. Beer also adds more flavor to dishes and is the perfect substitute for water or store-bought stock.

On the other hand, when selecting wine for cooking, remember Lhulier’s adage: “What grows together, goes together.”

“Rioja and paella [from Spain] will always be a classic pairing,” he says, “as well as red wines from the Piedmont and Tuscany [two regions in central Italy] with dishes that contain truffles and mushrooms.”

Regardless of what you choose—beer or wine—the most important thing to remember, says Frank Pagliaro, proprietor of Frank’s Wine on North Union Street in Wilmington, is to “never diminish your dish with inferior plonk [stuff].”

Use a beer or wine you would actually drink, he advises. Inexpensive “cooking wine” will not impart good flavor, nor will natty lights. Go with a mid-range pick that is table-ready and within your price range.

Beer: Light, Medium or Dark

When cooking with beer, the general rules are: light beer for delicate proteins like fish or chicken, dark beer for red meat like beef or game, and medium beer for either type of protein.

As beer transitions from fall to winter, Pagliaro recommends trying a Belgian ale. “Belgian brews are sexy,” he says. “I’m in love with Rodenbach Grand Cru to gueuze and Saison styles. These brews will definitely warm your soul in the winter months.”

Luckily, you don’t have to go too far to find decent Belgian brew. Market Street’s Stitch House Brewery has one of the most beer-forward menus in Wilmington, thanks to the fruitful partnership of owner Dan Sheridan and Master Brewer Andrew Rutherford.

Try the menu regular Soirée, a 5 percent ABV Belgian Saison/farmhouse ale. The best part? All Stitch House beers are available for takeout as a crowler (can + growler) to cook in the comfort of your home.

Chef Mark Eastman, owner and operator of Chefs’ Haven, offers a handful of beer-forward recipes:

Beer Type Dish
Light (Corona or Yuengling) Beer-battered fish, pork and sauerkraut
Medium (Sam Adams Oktoberfest or Anchor Steam Beer bread or mac-n-cheese
Dark (Guinness or Modelo Negra) Beef or vegetarian chili

In addition to cooking with it, Eastman also bakes with beer. “This time of the year, I make beer bread,” he says. “The recipe uses beer as the leavening agent, rather than yeast.”

His store in Hockessin is also well-known for its housemade baked goods and desserts, including a ginger molasses stout cake made with Guinness.

More of a Zinfandel fan? Eastman also bakes a chocolate red wine cake. He says the wine adds “a nutty flavor,” so if you bake at home try using a heavy-body red wine. Both the ginger molasses stout cake and the chocolate red wine cake are only available by pre-order, made three days in advance.

Terroir, Not Terror

Cooking with wine doesn’t need to instill terror in home cooks. Lhulier believes that the “food should dictate what wine to assign with a dish. Terroir [region] is everything.”

A simple yet stunning dish that uses wine is the Frutti di Mare or “Fruit of the Sea,” an Italian dish that includes clams, mussels and fish.

Says Eastman, “I choose a dry white wine. The wine steams open the clams and cooks the fish to perfection.” Serve it with crusty bread points or on top of al dente pasta for a perfect winter dish.

If you’re looking for an easy way to incorporate wine (or beer) into your dinner, make fondue, the Swiss dish that became popular in the U.S. during the 1960s.

A standard fondue consists of a blend of cheeses, including gruyère, wine (or beer), and seasonings. It’s served with a plateful of bread cubes, fruit or vegetables. Other fondue variations include chocolate, which can be spiked with a bit of kirsch, dry white wine or your favorite fruity red wine.

With the holidays right around the corner, it’s time to crack open a bottle of robust red. Try Pagliaro’s favorite “festive” wine, the Beaujolais, a light-bodied red made of the Gamay grape, originating from the Province of Beaujolais, just north of Lyon, France.

Pagliaro prefers the “stunning” Cru Beaujolais produced in the northern-most region. And of the various crus, he recommends the “Saint-Amour, Julénas and Chenas to the north, and the Régnié and Brouilly to the south.”

Regardless of which you choose—beer or wine—either will impart deep flavor into your cooking, whether it’s a beer cheese soup or a wine-braised short rib. Have fun experimenting with all types of winter beers and wines, or if you prefer, leave the cooking (and pairing) to the professionals.

Stitch House hosted its inaugural beer dinner in October. With so many courses plus a cocktail hour, the dinner was a huge hit, especially with dishes like the “Up in Smoke”— smoked Helles beer paired with the halibut with hibiscus cauliflower purée, roasted cauliflower, and a blackberry reduction. Look for more beer dinners in the future.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.