ingredient spotlight: coffee, savior & motivator

Coffee and I have a balanced relationship: it gives me life, and I worship it in return. I need a hot drink in the morning to hit me in the face and say "the...

By: Anna Decker / 07/18/2016

Coffee and I have a balanced relationship: it gives me life, and I worship it in return. I need a hot drink in the morning to hit me in the face and say "the world can be yours or something like that, just drink me immediately and get to your train on time." Coffee is my elected gasoline. Beyond how it makes me feel, though, I love the smell and flavor of coffee just as much as I love its magical powers (to which I've heard people refer as "caffeine").

I know I'm not alone in feeling this way, so it made sense to figure out exactly how I might be able to incorporate coffee into my world and bloodstream beyond just my morning mug. If coffee makes life in general more delicious, certainly it can also make my food more delicious. So here are a few things to know about cooking with coffee—some questions to answer, some myths to dispel, all of which will hopefully help you bring coffee to its full potential, just like it brings you to yours. Consider it returning the favor. coffee watercolor First of all, what's the difference between coffee grounds and espresso powder? This may change your entire worldview, as it did mine, but coffee beans and espresso beans are actually (*gasp*) the same beans. Arabica and Robusta are the two main varieties of plants that coffee beans come from (and not just words that Starbucks made up), both grown in different regions in Africa (highlands, lowlands), both with their own flavor. Coffee can be brewed from either Arabica or Robusta beans, but espresso is almost always a blend of the two. Try mixing two different beans in your coffee or espresso maker, just keep the region consistent! And if you're incorporating coffee into regional cuisine, be sure to use beans that are grown and produced in that region. For example, use a rich and chocolatey Mexican blend for these Fried Eggs with Chipotle-Coffee Mole from Epicurious.

Dark roast, light roast, medium roast, oh my! It's easy to be intimidated by roasts when selecting a bag of beans—coffee is not chicken! What difference does roasting really make? Well, in truth, a lot. Kenneth Davids' handy chart below shows all the differences in both the look and flavor when a bean is roasted.

Coffee roasts

Believe it or not, coffee beans are completely green before they're roasted. They are plants, after all!

pre-roasted-beans-awaiting-their-destiny What exactly is instant espresso powder? Is it bad for me? Does using it make me a bad person? Instant espresso powder has a bad reputation, one that I don't entirely agree with. Yes, as a general rule, I think it's good to be suspicious of anything with the word "instant" in the title. Nothing in life is instant. Not even a toy advertising "instant fun!" What if you don't know how to use the toy when you first take it out of its package? What if you instantly have to first read the instructions? What if it's a cheap quality toy and it instantly breaks? What if the friends you're playing with aren't that into it? What if you're playing alone because no one wants to be friends with someone who writes so much about instant espresso powder? You get my point. Even fun takes time.

But instant espresso powder not only lives up to its name and dissolves very, very quickly, but it also deserves more credit than it's given. Instant coffee is great for enhancing chocolate desserts. It lends a wonderful coffee flavor without the extra liquid from brewed coffee. Just a few teaspoons make all the difference—astounding considering that it's a product made from already brewed grounds, something you'd normally throw away! Learn how to easily make your own from the Bright-Eyed Baker, and use it in this recipe for Martha Stewart's amazing Mocha Brownies. So go for it, and don't let anyone judge you. Be your own person, with coffee and with life.

Adding coffee to spice rubs will make you want to rub basically everything with coffee spice rub It's no secret that coffee grounds have a unique and fairytale rainbow-sunshine flavor, but the acid in coffee also helps to tenderize meat. Win win! You can add it to braising liquid, but we suggest mixing grounds in a bowl directly with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and spices like cumin, cayenne pepper, and even cinnamon. From there, rub it all over the surface of whatever you're cooking: up close and personal, direct contact, like an IV to the heart (bloodstream? I'm not a doctor) of the meat. One of our most popular recipes from the Martha & Marley Spoon test kitchen is our Espresso Rubbed Steak with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts.

Espresso rubbed steak

The coffee here is subtle and infuses the flank steak with a slightly sweet and earthy flavor. Combined with smoky chipotle powder and ground coriander, it forms a bold mix that will make any piece of meat feel like the beautiful princess it was born to be. We melted a little butter with the spiced steak juices to then drizzle on top. By then you’ll have perfectly roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts to sop up this delicious buttery sauce.

Here are a few others we love:

Dry-Rubbed Salmon Tacos with Tomatillo-Avocado Slaw from Food & Wine

dry-rubbed salmon

Coffee-Rubbed Cheeseburgers with Texas Barbecue Sauce from Bon Appetit

coffee rubbed cheeseburger Caramelized Coffee Spiced Chicken from Savory Spice Shop

caramelized-coffee-spiced-chicken-thumbnail-fw500 And how about cold brew? That's just a fancy name for iced coffee, right? No! Cold brew has been all the rage in recent months, and certainly for good reason. Cold brew coffee is coffee grounds that steep in cold water for about 12 hours, just like you'd steep tea in hot water. But since the water isn't hot, it takes a bit longer for the flavor to extract. Be patient! The result is worth it—a smoother and less acidic flavor profile, as grounds aren't subjected to boiling water and the subsequent chemical change that takes place when heat is involved.

It's important to remember that the water you use matters. Just like cooking with wine—if you wouldn't drink it on its own, don't use it to brew coffee. And pay attention to your ratios: use 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds per every 6 ounces of water. Caffeine doesn't evaporate or dilute when you cook it the way alcohol does, so if it's something you're sensitive to, use decaf grounds if necessary. What does happen when you cook coffee, however, is that its flavor intensifies as the water evaporates and it becomes more caramelized, adding depth and character to your food. Say no more. We're all in. Here two great recipes using brewed coffee:

Molasses-and-Coffee Pork Chops from Alton Brown

alton pork chops

Late Night Coffee Brined Chicken from Food52


And while you're at it, just put coffee in everything! Seriously! Try it! Be creative with your coffee use, and cook with it on the general principle that anything you drink coffee with, you could probably put coffee in.

Grilled Green Salad With Coffee Vinaigrette from Bon Appetit


Coffee Butter for pancakes, french toast, and basically just about anything from Epicurious

coffee butter

Homemade Bread with Coffee and Orange Zest from Try Anything Once


What does it all mean? In doing research for this blog post, I learned so much more about coffee than I ever thought I would need to know, but I'm glad that happened. So often in my cooking, I find myself a little anxious about trying new spices or ingredients—I make a big production of it, I plan a whole dish around it, I do a lot of reading and pacing around my apartment. But I never really think to creatively repurpose ingredients like coffee: an ingredient I'm already so familiar with, that I always have in my kitchen, that I drink almost every day. It makes me want to start early on a Saturday, look into my fridge and pantry with new eyes, and create some kind of Frankenstein-esque lab, cooking and combining in interesting, fearless ways. But first, I'll start with a cup of coffee – hot, strong, and supportive, just as great even on its own.

coffee beans watercolor

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