The past decade has seen a huge boom in the production of microbrews and craft beers in the United States. We often think that beer’s only role in the kitchen is to help us relax a bit while making dinner, but the age-old beverage is in fact a versatile cooking ingredient. Though cooking with beer may seem like a gimmick, the addition of a few ounces of ale or lager to a meat or grain-based recipe can really transform the dish. Given the variety of beer that has become available in recent years, there is now an array of flavors that can be experienced by incorporating beer into your cooking.

In general, there are three functions that beer is excellent for in the kitchen:

1. Tenderizing Meat: There are certain enzymes in beer that can help break down the tougher fibers in meat. By integrating beer into the tenderizing process, a cut of meat can take on a whole new texture while absorbing the flavor of the beer. The best way to go about this is to create a beer-based marinade and let the meat soak in it for at least an hour. This guide will give you a crash course.

2. Leavening: Because beer and bread share a similar creation process, the drink can be easily incorporated into baking recipes. The extra yeast in the beer allows for a little extra rise, leaving your bread, cake, or muffins with a soft and fluffy texture. Chocolate Chip Beer Bread and Boozy Breakfast Muffins both make great use of beer as a leavening agent.

3. New Tastes: The strong aromas and spices that many craft brews contain can translate into delicious flavors in the kitchen. The key here is to try and find a beer that blends well with the other ingredients in a recipe. Dark beers, such as porters and stouts, are going to work well with heavier ingredients, such as bacon or chocolate. Likewise, lighter beers, such as pilsners or blonde ales, will go perfectly with lighter ingredients, such as lemon and fish.

Learning to cook with beer is a process. For every dish that beer can elevate, there is one that it can ruin, so it is important to try new things and find recipes that work for you. So grab a pint or two and start experimenting!