Tips for Cooking with Beer

Mindy Heisler-Johnson, who blogs at mindybakes.com, offers some pro tips on how to choose the best beer to cook with—and offers a recipe for braised chicken thighs with Belgian XX mushroom ragout. You'll want to read this!

As the (former) Executive Chef for the Sharp Edge Restaurants, I have been cooking with beer for years and find it to be more challenging and more delicious than when working with wine or liqueurs.

The flavors and nuances from a Belgian beer, the astringent tropical fruit nose of a dry hopped IPA, or even the dark richness of a stout or porter can bring brightness and depth to many different foods.

Some helpful tips from a pro:

*  Taste it!  

Taste any beer before you add it to your food. The flavors present when you drink it are the ones that will be amplified when it is cooked with food. If you notice bitterness in the flavor of the beer, you are definitely going to find that in your end product. The same goes for sweetness.

*  Hop profile matters!

Beers like IPAs, Double IPAs, pale ales, and even some stouts & porters can be excellent additions to a dish depending on what you plan to do with it. But bear in mind that hops are bittering agents and when reduced and cooked, this will be amplified ten fold.

If you are using them in a sauce or any application that will require reduction to remove alcohol or to concentrate the flavor, the hops will become predominantly bitter. This is an off flavor almost impossible to hide or disguise once it’s present. If you are reducing or plan on a long cook time, steer clear of the over the top hops—they are delicious to drink, but not so much when cooked down.

The flip side of this is that in lightly cooked items, like beer battering for instance, highly hopped beers are excellent and can add a fresh hop flavor and the aroma present when you opened the bottle!

*  Substitute Beer for Wine!

Lots of recipes call for wines, but beer is better! If your recipe calls for a dry white wine, try a saison or a Belgian pale ale.

If it calls for red wine, like merlot or cabernet, try a Belgian strong ale, a porter, or a lightly hopped stout.

When reduced, wine adds acidity and some light fruit notes, all of which are more developed in most craft and imported beers. But something like a classic beef stew gains much more depth when something like Gulden Draak is used in its place.

*  Don’t fear fruit beers!

I personally don’t like drinking fruit beers. I find their sweetness to be over the top, but for cooking they are amazing. When used in a sauce or a reduction they add true fruit flavor, acidity, and depth that you can’t achieve as easily with wine or fruit juices.

 Want to get started? Here's a hearty dish for this week's strange April weather: 

Braised Chicken Thighs with Belgian XX Mushroom Ragoût

This is an affordable and hearty fall/winter dish that captures the earthy notes of wild mushroom accented by the rich sweetness of a Belgian dubbel ale. When I make this at home, I serve it with a cauliflower smash (recipe below) and pan roasted Brussels sprouts or other dark green vegetable. This dish is even better as leftovers the next day – just reheat gently on the stove top with some additional stock.


8 each: bone in, skin on chicken thighs

to taste, salt & fresh ground pepper

2 Tbsp Herbes de Provence

4oz small diced bacon

1 each: medium spanish onion, julienne

1 Tbsp fresh minced garlic

1 lb. wild mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, or portobello), sliced

6oz Belgian XX (Bornem XX, Grimbergen, etc.)

12oz Veal or Chicken Stock

1 can cooked cannellini beans

1 cup diced tomato

1 Tbsp Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp soy sauce 

Heat a 2” deep sauté pan over high heat. Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel and season with salt, pepper, and the Herbes de Provence. When the sauté pan is heated, add a couple of table spoons of olive oil and sear the chicken until the skin is browned & crisped. Be careful not to over crowd the pan, you may want to do this in batches. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the bacon to the heated pan and render out over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to add later.

Add the onion & garlic to the pan and sauté over medium-high heat until the onion is softened and the garlic looses the raw aroma. Add the mushrooms and sauté until tender. Add the beer and reduce the liquid by half. Add the stock, beans, tomatoes, Dijon, and soy sauce and bring to a simmer. Once the stock is simmering, add the chicken thighs back into the pan and cover with a lid. Cook on the stove top at a gentle simmer or transfer into the oven at 350 to let the chicken cook and the stock reduce (approximately 1 hour).

Check on the chicken periodically to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. Flip each over for even cooking. When the chicken is fully cooked & tender, remove from the pan and place on a serving platter.

Place the sauce back on the stove over medium-high heat and let it reduce; at this point taste it and adjust the seasoning as needed with additional salt, pepper, Dijon, or soy. A ragoût should be thick & chunky with ingredients, not saucy and running all over the plate. So let it reduce until there’s enough sauce left to hold it all together. Be careful not to mash up the beans while stirring. Add the bacon and swirl or stir in 2 Tbsp of butter (margarine is NOT a viable substitute) to meld the flavors and thicken the sauce. Pour the mixture over the chicken thighs.

I garnish this dish with fresh, chopped parsley & a couple grinds of fresh, black pepper. 


Cauliflower Smash

As a side to your braised chicken thighs, this recipe makes enough to serve 6-8 people. It can be modified for any root vegetable. These are just my personal preferences.

4 lbs. potatoes – I prefer red or Yukon gold

1/2 head fresh cauliflower, cut into florets

to taste, salt & pepper

1/2 lb. butter

3 Tbsp. heavy cream

Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water until fork tender, same as you would for mashed potatoes (note: sometimes I peel them, but more often than not, I don’t. It’s the maker’s preference). When the potatoes are cooked, add the cauliflower florets and cook with the potatoes until they are soft (al dente doesn’t work—must be soft).

Drain and put back in the pot. Use a hand smasher to smash everything up. Add the butter & seasonings and mash together. The mixture should be chunky with a rough consistency.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

This can also be good with bacon, cheese, sour cream, and with the addition of carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, or parsnips.

—by Mindy Heisler-Johnson, who blogs at mindybakes.com. Follow her on Twitter @mindybakes

Tips for Cooking with Beer originally published in Craft Pittsburgh, a quarterly magazine about the local craft beer industry. Pick up free copies at and beer distributors along McKnight Road. Follow @CraftPittsburgh on Twitter

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