Reviews of two beer and food books: "Craft Beer Bites" by Jacquelyn Dodd and "Beer, Food and Flavor" by Schuyler Schultz

And now friends, it’s time to share my thoughts on a couple of beer and food books by two leading innovators of putting beer and food together, Jacquelyn Dodd and Schuyler Shultz.

“The Craft Beer Bites Cookbook” by Jacquelyn Dodd is a follow-up to her highly successful first effort “The Craft Beer Cook Book”, which I  highly recommended a couple years ago. Here, the emphasis is on using beer as an ingredient to enhance the flavor of appetizers, dips and other small bites. In her accessible and conversational writing style, Dodd lays out a wide range of recipes which all include beer. While they seemed easy enough to follow, there was a bit of a devil in the details.

For example, the “Belgian Ale-Marinated Grill Steak Crostini with IPA Chimichurri” recipe calls for marinating flank steak in a mixture of Worcestershire sauce and Belgian ale. Hmmmm…..what Belgian ale to use?  I mean, what constitutes a “Belgian ale” is awfully wide open. In the “Choosing the Right Brew!” sidebar accompanying the dish, Dodd recommends using “a sweet Belgian ale” so the malt caramelizes on the grill.  That really doesn’t narrow down the expansive Belgian ale category much, but I ended up using Allegash Dubbel and lucky me, the marinade imparted an excellent flavor to the steak. The lively IPA Chimichurri sauce worked fantastically with the flavorful marinated meat, the results being spectacular.

A few days later, I made the “Parsley White Bean Beer Cheese Dip” for some friends who invited our family over to watch a football game. Could I make the dip the night before and serve it for the game the next day without the flavors going bad?  Unfortunately, there’s no mention about how long the recipes keep for, good information many other cook books include. The recipe called for one can of Great Northern White Beans.  Should I drain the beans, or dump the whole can in? The recipe didn’t say what to do here either. I decided to drain half the liquid from the beans and the resulting dip was a little watery.  Adding some extra Parmesan and cream cheese fixed that. (Note to self, drain the beans next time.) The resulting bean dip was excellent, the IPA adding a nice bitter counter point to the fresh parsley and bean flavors.

I could probably pick a few more nits with the recipes, but that would be missing the point. I’ve made several of Dodd’s recipes from both of her books, and the worst ones turned out pretty good.  Many were simply excellent. Next time youre invited to a party, bring something made from Craft Beer Bites and chances are pretty high you’ll be a hero for the evening.

Then there is “Beer, Food and Flavor” by San Diego chef Shuyler Schultz. As you might expect from the title, much of the book is devoted to beer and food pairings. I must confess to find most beer and food pairing discussions either hopelessly clinical or so technical only a hard core foodie can understand it, both approaches taking all the fun out of the whole deal. As far as I’m concerned, all beer pairs with pizza, and a good beer with any meal makes it better.  When early in the book, Schultz declares, “The nature of beer is adaptable enough so that you’re likely to come across only a few truly disastrous pairings. Most often a pairing of random food A and random food B will yield an adequate, enjoyable experience,” I realized Schultz was my kind of guy.

Schultz does his best to make his treatment of beer and food pairing accessible and fun. Most of the time he pulls it off.  Examples from various beer tasting menus he’s prepared are used to good effect. Schultz has travelled all over the country meeting brewers and tasting beers and it shows on the pages. You feel the presence of a true culinary expert happily sharing his vast experience in an unintimidating fashion.  Still, he sometimes can’t help using sentences like,”Deeper analysis reveals notes of yuzu, pine needles, and eucalyptus leaf” as he does in describing Pliny the Elder.

Is this book a beer and food pairing guide, an introduction to craft beer to the culinary inclined, or a guide for restaurateurs to develop their own beer paring menus? It’s all of this and more with the dense, somewhat unfocused nature of the book coming across as a great big data dump.  But it’s a data dump from the mind of someone who’s spent his career thinking deeply on how beer affects our perceptions of food and has worked with some of the greatest brewers in the country.  More importantly, there’s a genuine love for craft beer and all that it stands for which creates a lightness that overcomes the heavily worded pages. The road Shultz takes us on in an interesting trip worth exploring.

The Craft Beer Cookbook: The Recipes are the Real Deal

Let me get this out of the way:  I haven’t been much of a fan of all those “cooking with beer” recipes.  They strike me as either hopelessly gimmicky or generic.    Some seem to be taken from some high end gastropub and call for some nearly impossible to find beer, without suggesting any substitutes to use if you can’t find the beer specified.   Others simply list “beer” as an ingredient, presumably some light lager which offers little flavor in whatever form it takes.  Many are so complex that only a restaurant kitchen could really produce them, while others involve routine pub fare with just some beer dumped in for good measure.    Rarely do I find any of these recipes particularly interesting or suited for the home kitchen.

Which makes The Craft Beer Cookbook different.   Not only are the recipes accessible, author Jacquelyn Dodd specifies particular beer styles for each recipe, but instead of specifying a particular beer, provides flavor profile guidelines for best results.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising since Dodd has been at this for a while on her website The Beeroness.  She writes in a readable, conversational style and leads off with an introduction sharing her wisdom on adding beer to existing recipe while still maintaining a good balance of fats and flavors.  She also finds ways to introduce craft beer into any dish or concoction imaginable, from baked goods, to appetizers, sauces, seafood, main courses, desserts, and even breakfast.  Dodd’s also a food photographer, so took all the colorful pictures throughout the book.

Roasted Mushroom and Brown Ale Soup
(Photo from The Craft Beer Cookbook)

Of course, cook books the are easy to read and have lots of nifty pictures are nice, but cook books ultimately succeed or fail on the strength of their recipes.   So one night, I cooked a dinner of “Roasted Mushroom and Brown Ale Soup” and “Stout and Pomegranate-Glazed Chicken Wings”.  Dodd recommended using a nutty brown ale for the mushroom soup, so I used Strike Brown Ale, and for the wing glaze I went with good old Guinness Extra Stout.  The soup had a great depth of warm, earthly flavors although it was hard to pick up the brown ale.   The roastiness of the Guinness Stout paired well with pomegranate flavors in a chicken wing glaze.  It was a great dinner with both dishes working well.    Later that week,  I whipped up a batch of Dodd’s “IPA Honey Mustard Vinaigrette”  using Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.   It turned out to be a unique vinaigrette with a strong citrus punch and a great balance of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors giving a surprisingly Asian character to salads. 

Chocolate Chip and Smoked Porter Pancakes
(Photo from Craft Beer Cookbook)

As successful as these recipes were, my favorite was “Chocolate Chip and Smoked Porter Pancakes”, which I  made with one of my all favorites, Stone Smoked Porter.   I was a little worried these pancakes would turn into something sickening sweet you might have at IHOP.  Instead, these fluffy pancakes had a great complex chocolate flavors with a smokiness from the porter that were a hit for all ages at the family breakfast table.   My 10 year old daughter remarked, “The beer gives it a nice flavor,” despite her unfamiliarity (thankfully!) with Stone Smoked Porter and asked, “Can you make this again?”.  My twelve year old son has autism so is a man of few words but declared them simply “Good”.   And lest you think I served alcohol to my kids for breakfast, Dodd illustrates that for most recipes, a majority of the alcohol cooks away.

Some may call this book yet another gateway for people to enjoy craft beer.   Others may point to this book as further proof that beer is the new wine.  Without getting get into some deep culinary discussion here, I’ll just say that years from now, I’m sure my copy of The Craft Beer Cookbook is going to have lots of well worn pages with food stains all over them.