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The Perfect Bean: Cooking with Coffee

In the Pantry

Cooking with coffee has been a brewing trend for U.S. chefs. Whether savory or sweet, coffee's noted characteristics of bittersweet chocolate, roasted nuts, ripe dark berries, and floral, grape, or peach-like undertones add richness to food like no other spice.

The Coffee Belt

The majority of coffee on the market today comes from two main species. First, Arabica, considered the superior fruit, produces a bean with less acidity and caffeine, and is often marketed as gourmet coffee. Robusta beans, on the other hand, come from a hardier plant, producing a lower grade bean with an astringent flavor and higher levels of caffeine.

Each variety thrives within a meandering band along the equator, known as the coffee belt. The majority of the coffee sold in the United States comes from Brazil, although Hawaii and Australia produce some of the most sought after coffee beans.

Why Does Coffee Smell so Good?

The distinctive aroma we associate with coffee is created during the roasting process, when a series of chemical reactions take place. During roasting, the temperature of the beans reaches 390°F and starches in the bean begin to break down, changing to simple sugars that begin to caramelize. Natural oils are released and acids and caffeine begin to weaken, changing the flavor or the bean as well as its weight and appearance. The darker the roast, the more caramelized the simple sugars become, producing a robust and complexly flavored bean.

Coffee as an Ingredient

It's no wonder why coffee is listed as a favorite ingredient among top chefs. Coffee has a distinctive flavor that can easily be turned up or down in any recipe. Steeping whole beans offers a mild introduction of coffee flavor into custards and pastry creams, while ground coffee barges right in with wallops of heady spice.

Coffee should be used just like you would use any strong spice. Similar to cinnamon or cumin, coffee flavors are best carried through tepid oils and moisture. Whether gently infusing the brunette characteristics into delicate liquids, invigorating meats with spicy rubs, or adding the distinctive brew to soups, stews and even tomato-based sauces, coffee has the ability to heighten other flavors with similar profiles. Adding a small amount of coffee to chocolate-based recipes, for example, or incorporating coffee into recipes with chilies intensifies the chocolate or chili essence because those flavor profiles are inherent in all ingredients.

The Perfect Cup of Coffee

Brewing the perfect cup of coffee at home is easier than you think when you follow these simple steps:

  1. Always begin with fresh roasted, whole bean coffee that is ground just before brewing.
  2. Use fresh, cold water. Tap water is perfectly fine, but can sometimes impart impurities into the brew if it's not filtered. Bottled water is a great alternative.
  3. Use the proper grind for your brewing method of choice. Different brewing methods require specific grinds to extract the perfect aromas and flavors from the bean.
  4. A standard American tablespoon of coffee to 6 ounces of water produces one cup of coffee. More or less coffee per 6 ounces can be used to reflect your specific tastes.
  5. Start with a perfectly clean press, pot, or coffee machine to ensure the best flavor.
  6. Never introduce the coffee grinds to boiling water for more than a few seconds. Keep water temperatures between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.

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