Johnsonville brand Cheddar Beer Bratwurst
Research suggests that marinating meat in beer can help guard against the formation of harmful substances while infusing flavor and tenderizing meat. (photo: Johnsonville)
Oktoberfest is the world’s largest fair, which takes place annually in Munich, Germany. This year’s 16-day celebration commenced Sept. 16 and runs through Oct. 3. Though more than 7 million liters of beer are typically served as a beverage, beer is also used in the preparation of many of the traditional dishes. Similar recipes are recreated in mini celebrations around the world.

Concepts are so much more than beer can chicken and beer-infused brats. For example, marinated bratwurst burgers transform the encased meat into a patty. It’s a preparation suggestion that butchers and retailers can provide shoppers during this festive time. Simply remove the casing from uncooked brats, form into patties and soak in beer in the refrigerator. After a few hours, dry off and cook to an internal temperature of about 160 °F (71 °C). Any light beer will do, but pale ale seems to complement the pork and spices found in brats.

Another creation is beer beef stew. This should be made with a darker beer, preferably Belgian ale. The beer is combined with broth for the long oven or crock pot cooking of the meat.

Such uses of beer tenderize meat and poultry while adding another layer of flavor. According to research, beer marinade might also help reduce levels of potentially harmful substances in high-heat grilled meats known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are the same group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline and are associated with cancers in laboratory animals and found in cigarette smoke.

Gilbert's gluten free beer brats

The study’s findings, which appeared in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry [2014, 62 (12), pp 2638-2643], suggest that marinating meat in beer can help guard against this formation of PAHs. Researchers tested three pork samples that they had marinated for four hours in different beers – a Pilsner, a non-alcoholic Pilsner and Schwarzbier (German black beer) – and subsequently cooked over a hot charcoal grill. They found that black beer most successfully inhibited the development of PAHs, but all three demonstrated a positive effect against the substance.

To learn more about the culinary aspect of cooking meat and poultry with beer, we spoke with Chef Dominique Tougne, owner of Chez Moi in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, who developed a special Oktoberfest menu inspired by and made with beer, including beer-braised pork belly and sausage. Being a native of Alsace, France, which is located near the German border, Tougne creates dishes that blend both French and German cuisine.

MEAT+POULTRY: Why cook meat and poultry in beer?

Dominique Tougne: It all depends on the application. With pork, beer gives the meat a nice color when you roast a cut such as the belly. The skin side will get a desirable light brown coloring. I like to use ale or IPA with white meat and a chocolate stout-style beer to marinate a hanger steak. Beer definitely adds moisture and flavor to the dish.

Beer-braised pork belly and sausage with green lentil ragout from Chez Moi
Chef Dominique Tougne, owner of Chez Moi in Chicago, developed a beer-braised pork belly and sausage dish for her Oktoberfest menu. (photo: Chez Moi)

M+P: What beers work best?

Tougne: In Alsatian-style cooking, most of the time people will use an IPA or ale since they are using it mostly with pork preparation. You’d use the same style with a more modern choucroute (sauerkraut with sausages and other salted meats and charcuterie, and often potatoes). For beef, I prefer a dark beer such as Guinness or stout.

M+P: How do different types of beer have different effects on meat and poultry?

Tougne: The main effect is on the final flavor. This also depends on the cooking method. Poaching chicken in a beer-based broth will give a sweet flavor to the meat. Using beer in a batter preparation to fry chicken will make the batter lighter. I always put a little bit of beer in my crepe batter. If you marinate beef in dark beer and grill it, you will get a nice caramelized color on the surface of the meat. Delicious!

M+P: Please describe the beer-braised pork belly and sausage you developed for your Oktoberfest menu.

Tougne: This dish is based on a traditional French recipe: petite sale aux lentilles. I cook green lentils in ale beer with bacon, onions, carrots, bay leaves, rosemary and thyme. When half-way cooked, I add a nice German-style sausage. It cooks slowly until done. During that time, I braise the pork belly in the same beer with carrots, onion, celery, salt and pepper. When cooked, I add the beef to the lentils and finish cooking the entire dish in a cast-iron pot in a medium-heat oven.