by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Jillian Clark
Confession: I don’t drink a whole lot of beer.
I frame this as an admission of guilt, because my low consumption feels unsupportive to the current liquid zeitgeist of our city. Raleigh is covered in suds these days, with microbreweries and bottle shops opening at a rapid clip. And while it thrills me in theory, I have to admit that I’ve been a bad cheerleader in practice.
Occasionally, I love a cold one – on a particularly hot day outside, or after a late night, there’s nothing better. But I’ve always struggled to feel as passionately about sours, Belgians, and stouts as I do about cocktails or wine.
Lately, though, a revelation has helped spur a new, genuine romance between me and beer: It is an absolutely gorgeous ingredient to cook with.
Now, apologies in advance to the connoisseurs, cicerones, and beermakers out there, for whom the idea of using beer as a marinade or a sauce is sacrilege. Hopefully you’ll see that my reconsideration of beer comes from a place of utmost respect. Beer can offer an unparalleled depth of flavor, balancing bitter, sweet, malty, salty, and acidic notes in perfect harmony. Its weight and carbonation add endless textural possibilities. Plus, it couples well with a huge spectrum of other ingredients. Beer is one of the oldest beverages on record and can showcase terroir with as much nuance as any wine. All of these things make it the equivalent of a blank check when it comes to cooking.
Cash it in by using beer as a built-in brine (this is essentially how beer-can chicken operates) or as a poaching liquid – your pilsner or kolsch will provide juicy, tender meat with robust flavor. Or consider darker stouts in your favorite baking recipe. I asked Les Stewart, beermaker at Trophy Brewing, how he likes to cook with beer, and he steered me in the direction of chocolate cake made with stout. “The residual malt sugar that darker beers offer, particularly if the beer is boiled down, can be a great way to add unique sweetness,” he says.
This summer, I’ve been using local beer for the ultimate grilled chicken. Chicken legs get cooked twice: first poached in beer and coconut milk, then grilled with a beer-brown-sugar rub. The two-part process may seem fussy, but if you do the poaching ahead of time, it’s a great party recipe: ready before your guests can finish their first beer.
Thai Grilled Chicken Legs
3 cans pilsner or Belgian ale (I recommend Raleigh Brewing Company’s Hell Yes Ma’am) *
1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
8 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon salt
2 pounds chicken drumsticks
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
¼ cup chopped cilantro stems
¼ cup mint leaves, for garnish
¼ cup sliced jalapeños, for garnish
* Take 2 tablespoons from one of the cans of beer and set aside.
In a large stockpot, combine all but two tablespoons of the beer, coconut milk, four of the garlic cloves, salt, and two cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer. Add the chicken and simmer slowly until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet and let cool completely.
In a food processor, add the brown sugar, white pepper, coriander, fish sauce, soy sauce, cilantro stems, remaining garlic cloves, and reserved two tablespoons of beer.
Preheat a charcoal grill. Brush the marinade over the chicken pieces, then grill over direct heat until grill marks form, a few minutes per side. Serve with mint leaves and jalapeños.