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Essence of Coffee

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

Friend of The Food Geek Steve asks:

Lots of coffee. Surprisingly, that’s the secret to just about any question involving how to make a really good cup of coffee: use lots of it. If you’re using a spoon to measure how much coffee to use, the coffee with taste bitter and tired, like a stand-up comic who’s just been upstaged by a juggler. It doesn’t matter how much coffee you’re making, or what method of preparation, measuring should either be done by a scoop, a cup, or by eye.

Personally, when I’m making French pressed coffee, I use the natural architecture of the press tell me how much to put in. First, press the plunger all the way down. Note that spot. You’ll put your coffee grounds right up to that point. I know this works with the Bodum presses, but I’m not sure about other brands. Chances are, it’s about the same. You know you’ve used enough if the coffee is opaque. If you can see through the coffee, it will be disappointing. I think I tend to use about 5:1 water to coffee, give or take.

Of course, amount of coffee isn’t the only thing of note. All coffee also relies upon, in roughly this order: freshness, both in roast and in grind, length of brew, skill of roasting, type of bean, consistency of grind, and temperature of water.

Freshness. This is up top because the flavor of coffee comes from oil which is flavored and released by the roasting process. The same process which makes a grilled steak tastier than a boiled steak, the Maillard Reactions, causes a roasted coffee bean to be flavorful. Like a candle that burns too bright, these oils live a short but full life. Stored properly, in an airtight container and away from heat and light, you can stretch out the flavor. However, for the best possible coffee, you roast and grind the same day you brew.

Length of brew. Four minutes, though there are some exceptions noted below.

Skill of roasting. It’s easy to under- or over-roast your beans. There is care and skill that must be taken in the process, whether you do the roasting or you have someone else do it. A very popular coffee chain has often been accused by aficionados of over-roasting their beans. Still, this is a matter of taste, so pick what you like and go with that until you change and want something else. 

Type of bean. I know, many people would put this way at the top, fetishizing beans such as the Jamaica Blue Mountain or the one that passes through the digestive tract of a civet. I don’t disagree that the beans are important, but failing in the above steps will ruin a good bean faster than a mediocre bean will ruin properly prepared coffee.

Consistency of grind. French presses like a coarse grind. They aren’t as picky on the consistency as other methods, such as espresso makers, will be. The true goal is to get something fine enough to deliver a lot of flavor, but not so fine that you can’t plunge the coffee.

Temperature of water. Just below boiling. Too hot, and you’ll damage the essential flavor oils, not hot enough, and you won’t get the oils off of the beans, and you’ll have brownish water instead of coffee. I’ve never worried too much about this.

So this is great advice and all, but much of it isn’t strictly true. Okay, I mentioned the essential oils that coat the bean. This is true, and it has all of the good flavor. The rest of the bean is bitter, so that if you over-extract the flavorful oils, then you get kick-in-the-teeth bitter that is no fun.

Still, we know things about oil. Oil doesn’t like to mix with water, and yet, that’s what we’re trying to do. The fiddling with the temperature is to convince the oil to come along, but the downside is that strips all the other, bitter, flavors off of the beans as well if we’re not careful. Are there other ways?

Well, sure. We know that alcohol merges with both oil and water. What if we rested the ground coffee or beans in some grain alcohol for a while, strained it out, and then mixed with sugar and water? Would we have the coffee equivalent of limoncello?

Perhaps you could skip the fancy bonding and just make some Coffee Oil. Maybe it’s as simple as any other infused oil, or perhaps there are other techniques. The important thing to remember is: just because we drink it the same way most of the time, doesn’t mean it doesn’t behave like other kinds of food. I’m not suggesting that you run out and try to make a coffee mayonnaise, but there are more secrets than we’ve extracted from coffee so far.

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