30 October 2016

Culinary adventures with hops

Last year I planted a hop plant in the garden. Hops used to be a common crop in Kent and East Sussex for centuries until the late 1970s, when big brewing companies started using imported pelletised hops. I liked the idea of growing something that was such a part of the agricultural heritage of my part of the world. Hops are mainly known as an ingredient in beer. I wanted to see if they had other culinary uses. When I was a student I had a summer job working on a farm where they grew a few hops, and I had done a bit of hop picking. I remembered the amazing smell that hops had - a bit like an IPA beer, but much fresher - and wondered if I could capture that flavour in food.


My first experiment with culinary uses of the hop plant was eating hop shoots in the spring, which I have also foraged from wild hedgerow hop plants. I wrote about these elsewhere, and found them to be pretty tasty. Hop plants benefit from pruning in spring, so it is possible to glean some hop shoots from cultivated plants without damaging their growth.

By late August, the hops themselves are fully developed. I harvested a good amount, and they had that amazing smell I remembered. I started by making a flavoured oil with them. I used my standard method for making flavoured oils, and blitzed some hops and sunflower oil in a food processor, before adding more oil, letting the hops infuse, then passing the mixture through a chinois to remove any solids. The resulting oil smelled good, but when I tasted it, it was very bitter. So bitter as to be really quite unpleasant.

Blitzing hops for hop oil
And that, I discovered, is the problem with cooking with hops. They are full of bitter flavour compounds which can't be detected on the nose, but which taste nasty in the mouth. I left the oil in the fridge and found that the bitterness did subside after about a week. But the nice hoppy flavour also largely disappeared.

After playing around with the hops a bit without success, I discovered that the Nordic Food Lab had done some fairly extensive experimentation cooking with hops, without much success. There post about there results can be found here. Maybe next year I will try brewing my own beer with my hop harvest...

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