For the last several years I’ve had a fascination with cooking risotto. I enjoy it so much, I decided to cook different risotto with my other love, craft beer. Weird idea? Maybe? I tried it though, and found some amazing results.
I don’t claim to be a chef, or a great cook, just an average cook for that matter. I just know that cooking has been a passion of mine for several years now. Maybe the fact that my Dad owned a restaurant for a few years and was a fantastic cook helped me learn the basics. Still, you can say this is an uneducated culinary experience.
Beers are normally a wonderful pairing for rice dishes like a creamy risotto but that was not enough for me. I didn’t want to simply pair a risotto with some of my favorite brews, I wanted to experience the flavor of my risottos being cooked with it.
Risotto is normally a “primo course”. This means that it’s served before the main dish and usually on its own. Over time it has become a main dish in the western parts of the world…like the US.
There are several styles of rice you can use to make a risotto, but for me nothing beats the flavor and texture of the Arborio rice. Risottos need to be creamy and full of flavor, mainly extracting all the goodness from the broth, and the Arborio rice best suits my palate for this.
I’ve experienced with both traditional risottos and risottos tostatta (which you don’t stir as much in order to create a crust on the bottom of the rice). My work here is mostly with the traditional.
For drinking, my rule of thumb was always to pair risottos made with more mushroom base or earthy ingredients (porcini, Portobello, Chanterelle, Shiitake and roots like Cassava (yucca, manioc) with a nice Pilsner or Vienna Lager. But, for cooking I’ve enjoyed adding some other styles to enhance those earthy flavors with pale ale, saison/farmhouse or a nice witbier. Since I’m using beers with an extravagant flavor in the dish I like to pair them with beers that are not so hoppy with a medium body, malt aromas, a light sweetness and a soft bitterness. Also, keeping the alcohol volume between 3.5% and 4.5% to keeps all those strong flavors in check. If you want to be more adventurous, sours make for some interesting flavors.
When creating a risotto with stronger flavor cheese base, like blue cheese and enhancing ingredients like saffron or creating savory tastes using fish sauce and oysters. I will also add some mild tasting seafood or artichoke for a more buttery flavor and texture. For these, I tend to move to beers that have a higher ABV and a good balance between malts and hops. A triple or a Belgium Strong are excellent combination and will enhance all those flavors you get on the center and side of your tongue. For drinking, I normally pair the dish with the same beer I cook with. But anything with spicy phenolics, forward yeast and higher alcohol content and a light body will contrast nicely. My definition of heaven is a shrimp risotto cooked with a triple, paired with Gnomegang from the Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY. It is a fantastic beer that in my opinion is the perfect marriage for this dish and reveals all those flavors.
Despite what I just wrote, I recently discovered a style of beer that is not necessarily my choice for cooking when I use sea food, but boy, for pairing was wonderful. Several years back a friend from Craft Beer Nation, Ashley Bower (aka. The Beer Fairy), introduced me to a style I knew about but was not familiar with: Gose. This is a German style beer with tart lemon flavors, a nice saltiness some coriander, and low ABV (something between 3.5 to 4.5%). The sourness almost reminds me of a Berliner Weisse. As I said, cooking with it didn’t do much for me but pairing it with my seafood risotto was, as another friend, Randy Gardner says: “Is The Bomb”.
Now among all styles of beers, I have few that standout as favorites. I love a good barleywine, but the climax of brewing nirvana are porters and stouts. That’s why I decide to experience with these styles more than any other. The question was; how to cook a risotto with such a robust style of beer that has a punch of coffee and chocolate aromas that are normally not cooked away? This tended to cause my wife to twitch her nose as she looked down at the skillet. I have to admit that they didn’t come out well the first time I tried.
Early on, my inexperience with the flavors was challenging. My wife was patient, but she would call me a knucklehead more often than not. I ruined more than one batch mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed. I took a break from cooking my risotto and made a few stout stews and different dishes using a slow cooking method to get used to those flavors. Soon my Stout Beef Stew became one of my wife’s favorite dishes. I call it Serendipity. I knew though that this style of cooking would not work for my risotto and that’s what I set out to do. I took my whole family along as guinea pigs.
A mistake I made was to think that the showcase ingredients were the problem. The secret for me turned out to be the cheese. Initially, my mind told me: strong beer flavor should pair with mild tasting cheeses. Experience proved however, that I had to fight big with big!
I had a recipe from my Mom for a Heart of Palm Risotto that uses red wine instead the white wine (the common choice for a risotto). Heart of Palm is normally preserved in salt water but has a very mild taste and a nice medium texture. The recipe called for bree and blue cheeses. I look in the fridge for a beer and all that was there was a Milk Stout on Nitro from Left Hand. That was my breakthrough. Strong stout paired with strong, pungent cheeses. The rest was history.
Stouts are not the best beer to substitute the wine when cooking risotto (and, there were a few miserable attempts early on), but with time I learn that there’s easier ways to get all that amazing flavor on the risotto.
At some point in my journey with the porters and stouts I made my second rookie mistake. So far I was going about to replace, what was to me a logical choice, the wine for beer, but there’s much more when it comes to cooking.
I had recently made my stout stew and had some left over. I was looking for my next risotto experiment when it occurred to me that the beef from the stew would be a great show case for the risotto. As I’m doing the prep work for the risotto the strong aroma from the stew I had just warmed in a pan really took over the kitchen. I decided that adding even more beer to risotto would be a bit too much and decided to cooked it the traditional way since we had friends coming over for dinner and there was not much room for a plan “B” if I failed. Much to my surprise the stout flavor and aroma from the stew came through nicely into the risotto. Now when I use porters and stouts, most the time I try to cook the ingredients with it rather than adding it to cook the rice for the risotto.
I will continue my journey, learning with every new dish and maybe one day will create a compilation of all those crazy and wonderful things I had the pleasure to make along the way. If you want to go on your own risotto adventure, I will leave you with a starting place. It is a recipe for what I consider one of my most successful combinations.
Dwarf’s Wheat Ale and Pear Risotto
1 cup of arboreal rice
1 cup of diced of chopped thin onions
1 cup of diced apple
1 cup of Julianne pears
1 1/2 cup of Wheat Ale
2 tbs of butter
1 tbs of olive oil (get a good one, it makes a difference on the coating of the rice)
2 cups of Gorgonzola cheese
1 cup of another cheese of your choice.
5 cups of chicken stock.
1 cup of diced tomatoes.
If you’re not use to make risottos I would prep all my ingredients before start so you can focus on the cooking and get the risotto nice and creamy.
Get a good color on the onions with the butter.
Coating the rice with both the olive oil and then half of the beer are very important steps before adding the stock. I would give a minute to each at least.
For this risotto I put the tomatoes on the very beginning since I’m adding for flavor and not texture.
Add a cup of stock at a time and stir to create a creamy texture. Keep adding the stock as the liquid dries up until almost cooked through. Add the apples and the pears stir, for another minute turn the stove off, add the cheese of your choice, and then the Gorgonzola. You can add spices or herbs to taste as well.