Chefs Go Beyond the Beer to Cook with Hops
If ever there was an ingredient worthy of legend, it would be hops. Lauded as the cousin of marijuana, and the centuries-old key to American microbrew fandom, hops are truly as their scientific name—humulus lupulus—suggests, a “wolf among weeds.” Bright, bitter, earthy, grapefruit-y, resinous or floral, they are temperamental agents of change in everything from mild pale ales to emboldened imperial IPAs. But their potential goes beyond the pints. For chefs looking to redefine the way we think about beer and food, hops are the answer.
At Brewed Food in Denver, Jensen Cummings uses a wort-hop brine to cure bacon that is later smoked over barrel staves. The ash itself is composed of aged and fresh hops that are dehydrated alongside burned vegetables, and ground together to produce a smoky finish. “The bacon has dark, intense flavor, and tones of sweetness from those aromatic vegetables, and then it’s got this nuanced bitterness from the hop ash,” he says.
Cummings also hop-cures egg yolks, with a 48-hour cure of spent grains, salt, sugar and hops. He says British-origin East Kent Golding hops are key for the cure, due to their low alpha acid count, which determines bitterness levels in hops. “For chefs just starting to cook with hops,” Cummings explains, “don’t use Columbus hops, for example, that are 13 percent. They go over really well in the Midwest for IPAs, but you’ll struggle against them when cooking, and you’ll be fighting their own nature throughout the process.”
Ben Smart of Big Grove Brewery in Solon, Iowa, overrides bitterness by pickling the preserved hop shoots he serves alongside a halibut dish with ramp purée, raw asparagus and quinoa. “Hop shoots are underdeveloped, so they haven’t fully formed all of the essential oils that give hops bitterness,” he says. “[They] add a bite of acidity, and it’s just enough to give your palate the sense that, ‘Wow. There’s more going on here than normal.’”
“Using fresh hop pellets is instrumental for us,” says Carrie Wright of HopTown Wood-Fired Pizza in Yakima, Wash., where locally sourced Cascade pellets are crunched up to blanket each pizza before it hits the oven. “Each particle releases a citrusy, earthy aroma in the fire, so we don’t want large chunks.”
At Austin’s The Brewer’s Table, Zach Hunter cooks with hops via cold infusions, oils and butters. “The bitterness of hops is much easier to manage in fat than in a water-based liquid,” he says. “Curing also makes a lot of sense, because you’re able to pull out moisture from whatever you’re curing and replace it with that super-aromatic hop characteristic.”
For Hunter, hops are now just another part of the culinary puzzle.
“What’s important to me is that we pass up the low-hanging fruit of just cooking with beer,” he says. “That’s been done, and it’s not as thoughtful or as interesting. That’s why we focus on the raw ingredients, like hops.”