By now you know hops are sought-after for imparting complex flavors to beers. But did you know that hops are also great for cooking with?
Hops may seem like an unusual ingredient in your kitchen, but at a basic level, they are similar to any other spice in your kitchen. All you need is to know how to use hops just like you use chives or salt to spice up dishes. Hops, when added judiciously and with specific techniques, enhance the flavor of a dish.
Basically, most parts of the hop plant are edible – the shoots, flowers, and leaves. However, for this article, the focus will be on the cone-shaped blossoms, commonly known as hops.
Essential oils and acids
Hops derive most of their flavor from the oils and acids produced by glands hidden under their petals. These compounds are normally present as a sticky, yellow excretion known as lupulin. Most of the time hop flavor depends on the combination of specific blends of acids and oils in its lupulin.
Alpha and beta acids
Lupulin has two types of acids: alpha and beta acids. Alpha acids carry the bulk of the bittering properties of hops which are critical when selecting hops for cooking. If you choose hops with a high concentration of alpha acids, you ruin the dish. On the other hand, beta acids give hops their unique flavor and aroma.
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While acids give hops the bitter taste, essential oils are responsible for the actual flavor of hops and their aromas. Whenever you see hops described as floral, grassy, citrus, piney or earthy, they are referring to the flavors contributed by the oils to the individual variety of hops.
Hops’ essential oils are the complete opposite of acids. While the acids give their best during long boils, essential oils usually lose their value when boiled for long. To avoid losing these oils when cooking, it is prudent to add hops towards the end of your cooking if the dish involves extended boiling.
When cooking with hop flowers, you can opt to infuse a dish and strain out the hops such as when making custard or sauces. Alternatively, you can grind the hops into a fine texture to ensure that the flavor is distributed throughout the dish with no intention of removing them from the dish.
Ultimately, whichever way you choose to cook with hops, these flowers always work wonders on dishes by adding robust aromas, flavors, and textures.