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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Hopcorn Chicken

I like the idea of using hops in food. Picking out the flavour characteristics of a particular hop and using them in place of, or alongside, the ingredient they emulate. How about a lemon mousse with the enigmatic sorachi ace, or key lime pie with the vibrant, zesty notes of citra? It’s something that appeals to both the food and beer lover in me, all at the same time.

The difficulty comes in isolating hop flavour without also extracting bitterness. In “How to Brew” John Palmer tells us that: “The main bittering agent is the alpha acid resin which is insoluble in water until isomerised by boiling”. But put a hop cone in your mouth and bite down on it, make a hop tea using water at 60 degrees centigrade or dry hop a beer heavily and you’ll know that boiling is far from fundamental to extracting bitterness. And whilst that bitterness is essential to balancing the malty sweetness of beer, in food it’s almost always unwelcome.

Homebrew chef Sean Paxton talks about a technique for capturing hop flavour that involves salt. He makes a “hop salt” by layering together alternate bags of hops and sea salt. The bags are made from muslin which allows the aroma of the hop to slowly permeate the salt over time. Although it takes a while for that hop flavour to become strong enough, it eventual provides you with a hop flavour that can be added easily to food without the dreaded bitterness.

Whilst my own hop salt experiment slowly comes to life, I thought I’d have a go at something a bit quicker. We know that hop pellets taste bitter as all hell, but could you use them sparingly enough, combined with other ingredients, to give a hop flavour with manageable bitterness?

I took two columbus hop pellets, just two, ground them in a pestle and mortar and added sea salt flakes. Instantly I got a huge aroma of dank, wet leaves. In the background lurked a piney note and some lemony citrus. Working on the fly I added some coriander seed, thinking that the zingy, citrus freshness that they have would pick out and amplify the similar qualities in the hop. Boom! What an aroma resulted, delicious.

To test this seasoning I needed something quite subtle, a carrier that would provide a canvas for the flavour rather than mask it. I used some popcorn chicken by taking it still hot from the oven, throwing it into a plastic food bag with the seasoning and giving the whole thing a good shake. The coverage this gave was pretty much spot on; light, but evenly spread across each mouthful.

Did it work? Simply put, no. The smell coming off the food was great, the heat forcing those volatile aroma compounds into the air, massively enhancing the fragrance that the seasoning had when first ground. But the bitterness was still there, still there in spades. At first you got a great flavour following through from the notes in the aroma, but then in pounded the most brutal bitterness I’ve ever experienced. Massive, face puckering, ear curling bitterness. Clutching at straws, a light sprinkle of sugar did actually go some way towards tempering it, but ultimately nothing was bringing this one back from the realms of failure.

Interesting stuff. Let’s see how the hop salt goes.


Mark Dredge said...

Ha! Great post and great experiment. I love testing things out this way (we need to do that beer and food experimentation evening!!).

Shame this didn't work. I was wondering if you'd add sugar to the mix, but clearly it wasn't enough. What if you had a hop and honey glaze? Perhaps you need a hop like Crystal which is fruity but low in bitterness compared to the tongue-splitting Columbus.

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BeerReviewsAndy said...

I like this idea shame it didn't work.

what about making your own beer batter or breadcrumbs for the chicken and doing it that way....wonder if layering hops and breadcrumbs would work in the same way as the hop salt...

Ed said...

If my latest beer experiment is anything to go by maybe you should have tried a curry (and low alpha hops!)

Flagon of Ale said...

Shame it didn't work. They look delicious! I wonder if something less punchy, like Saaz, would give you more flavor without so much bitterness.

I have been planning to make hop ice cream some time by steeping hops in the warm custard mixture before freezing. My hope is that the sweetness of something like ice cream would work with hops.

Homebrew Chef said...

Good post, like your ideas.

I think the 2 pellets and the choice of Columbus was interesting. Try citra or amarillo hops instead. And how much salt did you add? I would use at least a cup... a little hop powder goes a long way. Plus, what is it that you are wanting the hop to bring to the dish? Dank hops will add that... Cascade will bring more Grapefruit... Fuggle more earthy spicy... Think mushrooms...

Or re-think the dish and try this: http://drinkdrakes.com/site/?p=408

The hops in the flour add the flavor, and even with the frying, the bitterness is minimal.


Sean Z. Paxton
Homebrew Chef

Mark said...

Mark: Food experimentation nights are the new beer nights. ;) The sugar actually did a pretty decent job of balancing it out, better than I thought it would at least. It tasted more like the bitterness was being held off by the sweetness, rather than balanced out by it though. You got the sweetness at first and then as it faded away the bitterness came pounding back in.

Andy: That’s a pretty interesting idea. The problem you’d have is that you’d need to leave the hops and crumbs together for a long time, in order for the hop flavour to pass to the bread. You’d probably end up with mouldy bread crumbs before you got any hop flavour into them.

This was really just a quick experiment to see what I could end up with. The points about using a lower alpha hop are all good. I wonder if using any hop in its raw form will cause bitterness problems though? I think my next move will be to get the hop flavour infused into a carrier (salt, oil, spirit etc) and then I’ll attempt to add that to the food.

Sean: I used FAR less salt than that. I think you make a very good point that the amount of hop pellet you need is actually much, much smaller than you’d think. I was just playing around with columbus because that’s what I had to hand really, hoping to hit upon a method for adding hop flavour to food so that I could then consider the right hop for the job later on. That fried chicken looks great. How much hop flavour do you get coming through with everything else going on in that dish? Interesting that the hot oil doesn’t create a lot of bitterness.

Leigh said...

Mate, I'm not blowing smoke up your ass when I say that, as someone that regularly cooks with beer and does matching, your recipes - failures or not - have been excellent this year, the best out there. Keep it up.

Mark said...

Ahh shucks, I dunno about that mate. Much appreciate you saying so though, glad someone is enjoying them. :)

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Hoppin it up said...

Dried hop flowers are fun to experiment with too (from the health food store, unknown variety). When rehydrated they swell up like brussels sprouts. My hop-cooking data so far is as follows:

1. Miso soup made with ginger and floating hop flowers -- no. Bitterness wins.

2. Hop and yerba mate tea -- OK, but none of the hop comes through since yerba mate is brewed below boiling. Not bitter, but a dud.

3. Hop bitterness does harmonize well with the residual bitterness of some stronger olive oils. Oil soaked hop flowers are somewhat chewable (by bold and manly men) if you like that bitterness (a real lot). Oil soaked hops fried as a layer in some salty confection--say pressed close with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts in other layers--might work. Inside ravioli. Or in lasgana maybe.

4. Like... like... chopped/fried OLIVE OIL SOAKED HOP FLOWERS AS A PIZZA TOPPING?? Used sparingly, could work.