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Cooking with Hops

Ben Sammis, September 24, 2014 -   

It's occurred to me more than once over the years that hops are unique among beer ingredients in that they have no other traditional culinary use.  Yeast, grains, fruit, the myriad other adjuncts that go into our holy beverage, they have all been staples of actual food throughout human history.  But hops - they go into beer and naught else.  Being a gardener and self-taught cook as well as a homebrewer, and given the abundance of hops I find myself in possession of, I thought I'd rectify this.

First, a bit of research.  There seems to be a wealth of folks talking about using hops as a seasoning, but precious little in the way of actual recipes, other than the bruschetta.  If you've ever dared to eat raw hops, as I have, that sounds somewhat less than appealing.  Not that I won't be giving it a try eventually anyway.

Great Divide, purveyors of excellent beer that I used to distribute and which I can no longer purchase in my hometown, makes hoppy pickles, but at $16/jar, that's bloody expensive.  But it seemed a good place to start, as the header photo indicates.  Especially since I am personally of the opinion that dill pickles occupy the same rarified air as chicken noodle soup and IPA among The Perfect Foods.  

It's truly unfortunate that none of those are nutritionally complete, and in fact rather unhealthy, for I would happily eat and drink nothing else were I forced to choose such a limited array of dietary options.  Having an excess of cucumbers from the aforementioned gardening, I made a truly heroic amount of pickles.  The entire bottom shelf of my fridge has been filled for some time now, with a variety of methods utilized.  Here's the best one.

Boil 2 cups of vinegar, 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of salt, and 6-8 whole hop cones (or an equivalent number of pellets) for about five minutes.  While this brine is cooling, slice two medium cucumbers thinly (or cut them into spears) and layer them into a mason jar with fresh dill, garlic, onion, and whatever else you like to flavor pickles with.  Shake a bit of extra salt in there occasionally as well -- salt is what makes the cucumbers absorb the flavors of the spices and brine.  Once the brine is at room temperature, pour it over the cukes into the jar.  Toss a couple of hop cones or pellets in if you like, cap the jar, and stick it in the back of your fridge for 3-5 weeks.  Voila -- bright, citrusy and piney dill pickles.  Amateur tip -- these make an outstanding Bloody Mary garnish.

But pickles aren't really a meal, so I had to push it a bit further.  I butterflied chicken breasts, stuffed them with two finely chopped whole cones each, and grilled them with just a tiny bit of barbecue sauce.  

Side note -- I generally like to make my own BBQ sauce, but Stubb's is the way to go if you don't have time for that shit.  Between my wife, myself, and my homebrew partner we decided that this was a very tasty way to cook chicken, but the hop flavor was very easily overwhelmed with the addition of even a small amount of extra sauce.  I didn't tell either of them that there were hops in the chicken, but they both noticed it more or less immediately.

My third experiment was to blend dehydrated chiles, garlic, and hops (all from the garden, natch) and use the resulting blend as a burger seasoning.  The burgers turned out great, but I'm doubtful that I tasted any hop character at all.  The chiles and garlic were a bit overwhelming.  For the record, the ratio, by volume, was roughly 3 hops:2chiles:1 garlic.  I still have half a jar of this blend, so we'll see what develops.

Experiment number four was wholly unsuccessful, at least as far as tasting hops in my food went.  It involved chicken, acorn squash, asparagus, and a crock pot.  Very tasty, not even a whisper of hop flavor or bitterness, so I won't waste any more of your time.

And so we come full circle back to The Perfect Foods, with chicken noodle soup.  As I type this, it is cooling on my stove.

To make it, I boiled the bones and skin of one whole chicken along with carrot, celery, onion scraps, and roughly a tenth of an ounce of hops.  Drain and refrigerate overnight, then in a large stock pot saute 6 carrots, 6 celery stalks, half of an onion, and two tablespoons of garlic in enough oil to cover the bottom of the pot.  When the veggies start to soften, add 6 pellets of hops and stir vigorously.  Pour in the broth from the night before and add the chopped chicken (about half of the chicken) from which the bones came.  While this is simmering, boil a pound of egg noodles in a separate pot.  Add a couple of hop pellets to the noodles as they boil.  When the noodles are cooked, drain them and immediately add them to the soup, along with 10-12 hop pellets in a tea bag or other straining device.  Kill the heat and stir vigorously.  

This is basically the equivalent to the whirlpool at 3 Floyds for which we all give thanks.

I took this picture twenty minutes ago.  Those are Amarillo hop pellets slowly infusing my soup with what will hopefully be a ton of hoppy goodness.  I just tasted a bit of the broth, and it's tasty and subtly hoppy.  I may have to dry-hop this to fully realize the potential here, but this seems like it's pretty successful.

Now, I realize this is utterly insane, but at least on a cost basis, it's not that unreasonable.  Hops cost about $3 an ounce, which rather surprisingly is cheap as far as spices are concerned.

Fifty three goddamn dollars an ounce for chives!  Hops are fucking cheap!

So, lessons learned - boiling, or at least very high heat, seem to be essential.  Which really shouldn't be that surprising.  Dry-hopping (cold hopping, I guess?) in the absence of alcohol is rather ineffective, which is surprising to me.  I expected the vinegar in the pickle brine to function more or less the same way that alcohol does in extracting hop oils, but no such luck.  Also, it would seem that hops are easily masked by other more traditional flavors, so if you're thinking of hopping on this crazy train wth me, use other seasonings sparingly.

I remain unconvinced (other than the pickles) that hops make a viable addition to my spice rack, but it's been a lot of fun playing with them in this context, even more so than drinking the beer while doing so, and I'll definitely continue to do so.  I think my next attempt might be a hoppy enchilada sauce, with hops instead of chili powder.

Anybody else out there tried this?  Anybody with more cooking knowledge have any ideas?  

Bueller?

You should probably not bother following me on Twitter or Untappd, but if you do I promise to use profanity as punctuation while talking about baseball.

UPDATE:  The soup is cold and going into the fridge.  It is definitely hoppy, but I'm not entirely certain if that's a good thing.  

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