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In America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated they have a recipe for an almost no knead bread that has beer as one of it's ingredients. What does the beer add? And can it be replaced by something else (that's not alcoholic)?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The purpose of the beer (and the vinegar) in this case is to add some of the malty, fermenty flavors typical of longer-fermented or sourdough breads. You can either leave it out and replace it with an equal quantity of water or use a non-alcoholic beer

The carbonation from the beer might add a little extra lift at the start to establish some air cells and work the gluten a bit, but with an 18 hour room-temperature bulk rise, that benefit would be negligible. In most beers (especially large US commercial bottlers) there isn't enough active yeast left in the bottle by the time it is drunk to do anything either.

The author of the original article (Cook's Illustrated #90, Jan 2008) added the beer and vinegar in order to add flavor to a bread recipe that already produced decent bread.

My bread now had tang [from the vinegar], but it lacked complexity. What I needed was a concentrated shot of yeasty flavor. As I racked my brain, I realized that beyond bread, there is another commonly available substance that relies on yeast for flavor: beer.

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Is it really just flavors? Beer would add carbon dioxide just as yeast would. Is that not part of the equation? –  Carey Gregory Apr 12 at 1:36
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Beyond flavor, malt is known to be a good dough improver. But as the malt is supposed to be all fermented away in beer, I can't say for sure whether using beer in the dough will help. It is possible that some non-fermented malt residue is sufficient, or that the fermentation products are as good as the malt itself. But it could be that this is a false lead. –  rumtscho Apr 18 at 17:45
    
@rumtscho the malt used as a dough conditioner is diastatic (ie the diastase enzymes are still active), boiling the wort during the brewing process deactivates these enzymes. –  Didgeridrew Apr 19 at 1:45

I've found that beer in breads (and crusts, to be more specific) gives it a very light, airy quality. I don't know enough to speak authoritatively, but I'd guess the yeast (or whatever) in it helps its levity - which makes it so you don't have to knead it as much.

So I don't know for sure - but I'd guess that it has a functional purpose other than just flavor.

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