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.