Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reheating Coffee

One myth I repeatedly encounter regarding coffee is the one that it should never be reheated. People say this in the same tones as they might employ when saying something like "Never make tea out of Nightshade leaves."

The key, however is in what the coffee was doing before it became cold, and in how you reheat it. A half-pot of coffee in a drip-brewer carafe that sat on the burner for four hours yesterday before you finally got around to switching it off probably isn't going to taste very go0d if you reheat it. But you certainly may, and aside from bad taste, and perhaps heartburn, it won't hurt you.

A friend of mine makes a pot of coffee in his drip-brewer every morning, and immediately after it is done brewing, (and pouring a cup) he turns it off. Then, when he wants another cup. he pours and microwaves it. This is his method of making sure each cup tastes fresh-brewed, and it works pretty well, compared to coffee that has been sitting there cooking for hours.

I have occasionally filled my vacuum carafe, had a cup or two, become involved in something, and only realized the next morning that I hadn't drunk more than a little of my coffee, when I picked up the carafe to head for the kitchen. So, should I then pour most of my daily ration of coffee down the drain, and make a fresh pot? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with the coffee in the carafe from the day before, aside from the fact that it is no longer hot. At this point, I have two choices. I can either microwave each cup as I pour it, or I can heat the whole batch and pour it back into the carafe. As one of the reasons I have the carafe in the first place is so I don't keep having to return to the kitchen for a fresh cup, I usually opt for the latter. I pour the coffee into a saucepan, and heat it for a couple of minutes over a burner on my rangetop, then pour it back into the carafe, and continue as usual. I just take care not to boil it.

So, go ahead and reheat coffee, whether in the microwave or on top of the stove. Just remember that it will taste the same as it did when it got cold, so if it tasted lousy before, it will still taste lousy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Home-roasting Coffee

Many folks don't know it, but you can actually buy raw coffee beans, and an inexpensive roaster, and roast your own beans.

Why would you want to do this? Well, for one thing, green coffee beans keep much longer than do roasted ones, so effectively, every time you roast a batch, you have fresh coffee beans. These, of course, are much fresher than anything that you might buy in the grocery store. Roasted coffee beans are at their best about 24 hours after roasting; the ones in the store have been roasted somewhere, shipped somewhere, and perhaps even shipped somewhere else before finally arriving in the containers in the store. Then, who knows how long they've been sitting in the containers in the store? Then, after perhaps a couple of weeks, you take them home, and take another week or two to use them up.

For another thing, you can discover the perfect roast for your favorite coffee beans. You might, for example, find that while you like the Sumatra beans in your local shop. you like Sumatra even better if it is roasted lighter or darker than what you are normally able to get.

On the downside, it is a bit of a hassle, compared to simply dumping roasted beans out of a bag. It can be anything from a moderately to a very smoky operation, as well, so unless you have a very good fan system in your kitchen, it is an operation best performed outside.

Also, though you may imagine that roasting coffee would smell wonderful, please let me assure you, it does not. In fact it smells a lot like burning popcorn while it is roasting.

But, for those of you who have mastered the art of brewing coffee already, it can be a fun next step. If you locate some raw beans, and don't want to spend the money on a roaster until you're sure it's something you want to do, many roasters like the one pictured above are essentially glorified popcorn air-poppers, with a few bells and whistles tacked on, like timers, and filters to catch the papery skins that come off the beans. So, if you have a popper like this, you can certainly roast your beans in it. Again, though, you will want to do it outside, not only because of the smoke, but also because this method will blow out a lot of the papery skins, and you won't want to clean them up afterwards. And, make sure to roast in small batches; if you simply fill the popper, the beans on the bottom will burn, and the ones on the top won't roast.

If this interests you, and you have trouble finding beans and supplies locally, they can be found at Please try locally first, although I will certainly not blame you if you can't find anything. I live in the Seattle area, and I haven't been able to find a supplier, and Seattle is pretty much "Coffeetown, USA."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Not to use a French Press

Many people buy French presses and are disappointed with the results. So, in a nutshell, how not to use a French press is to merely follow the instructions you get from the manufacturer, or from some other source, and then to expect good coffee right out of the gate.

If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may have, somewhere along the way, purchased a French press. After this, three outcomes were likely (starting with the least likely):

1) It made the coffee of your dreams, and you and your French press lived happily ever after

2) It made coffee that you didn't much care for, and you chalked it up as another overblown gadget you'd wasted money on, stashed it away somewhere, and went back to using your drip-brewer

3) It made coffee you didn't much care for, but since you'd heard and read all the rave reviews about what wonderful coffee French presses make, you decided your palate was unsophisticated when it comes to coffee, and that you should learn to like what your French press turned out. So you use it, but secretly still like the coffee they serve at (insert name of restaurant or coffee bar here) better.

Why do I think it likely you got less than stellar results? Because a French press is a tool, not an appliance. Simply changing to a French press does not guarantee you will make better coffee, just as simply getting better pots and pans does not guarantee you will make better food. Better kitchen tools simply give you the opportunity for better results. You still have to learn how to use them.

In learning to use your French press, the first thing to understand about coffee is this: good coffee is coffee that tastes the way you want it to taste. Period.

You probably bought a French press, and then looked at the instructions for how to use it. Or perhaps, you read something online, or even in a book. The thing is, these instructions tell you how to make coffee that tastes the way the person who wrote the instructions likes it.

These instructions usually go something like this.

1) Heat X amount of water to X degrees

2) Put X amount of ground coffee in the press

3) Pour hot water over ground coffee, and let steep for X amount of time.

4) Pour coffee, and enjoy

I've often seen some other steps included, which contained nonsense like "pour a little water in first to allow the grounds to expand," but what I have listed here are the basic steps.

Here is the second thing to understand about coffee. And this is important, so pay attention. It contains "good" coffee flavors, and bitter flavors. The more water you pass over a given amount of coffee in a drip-brewer, or the longer you allow coffee to steep in a French press, the more bitter the brew will become.

Think of your coffee grounds as tiny, coffee-flavored candies, like those multi-layered jawbreakers. These layers dissolve in water, one at a time, so the more water you pour over them, or the longer they soak in water, the more layers dissolve. The outer layers are non-bitter coffee flavor, but each layer beneath gets progressively more bitter and less coffee-flavored, until at the very center, the flavor is almost all bitterness and no coffee. (Okay, the grounds don't actually dissolve; it's just useful to think of it this way, all right?)

Many people equate "strong" coffee with "bitter" coffee, and think they don't like strong coffee. Subsequently they don't put enough ground coffee in their drip coffee maker, and wind up with a weak, bitter brew. If they put more ground coffee in, they would have better flavor with less bitterness. Well, my idea of better, anyway. A French press has the advantage, here, because the ratio of coffee to water doesn't affect the bitterness of the coffee. Five cups of water, or five gallons, the flavor components are leeched from the grounds at the same rate, so the only difference will be in the strength of the brew. The steeping time is what controls the bitterness of the coffee. This is because in a French press, the grounds just sit there in the same water. In a drip coffee maker, new water is constantly being poured over them, which carries off first the good flavors, and then the bitter. It's like the difference between a stream and a pond.

So what does all this mean to you? What it means is that you need to find your own perfect method for using a French press. Maybe you like coffee with a little more bite to it. Maybe you like coffee that is very strong. Maybe you like coffee that is not so strong, but it's not bitter, either. Maybe you like weak, bitter coffee.

The wonderful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more. The awful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more.

A French press is not like a drip machine, where pretty much all you control are the brand and type of coffee, and how much of it to put in. With a French press, you control every aspect of the brewing, or in this case, steeping process. The quantity and temperature of the water, the quantity of the coffee, the steeping time. Which can be a great thing. It completely frees you to learn to make the coffee you love. So, why jump back into the pen with the rest of the cattle by following someone else's method?

But, first, of course, you must learn how to make the coffee you love with the French press. To do this, I recommend starting with whatever coffee you like in your drip-brewer, whether it be whole bean or pre-ground. Start by following the manufacturer's, or that guy on the internet's instructions. Then see how you like the taste. Want it stronger? Next time either use more coffee, less water, or increase the steeping time. Want a little more bite? Increase the steeping time. And so on. Experiment, changing only one thing at a time, until you arrive at the perfect method for you.

Some myths, some dos, some don'ts

Myth: Many people say things like "Never pour boiling water over coffee grounds, it will shock them." Then they recommend grinding the coffee after turning the heat off, apparently because the water will cool sufficiently in the few seconds it takes you to do this. I'm not sure why they think a couple of degrees will make a difference. For that matter, I have no idea what "shocking" means, or what it is supposed to do to your coffee, and, as these things go, no one who says this seems to know either. Perhaps make it write scathing letters to the editor? This, to me, is just one of those things the "experts" say, in order to sound knowledgable, and fits right in with other stock phrases like "Always wash your chicken before cooking," and is equally meaningless. I've tried it both ways, and the only difference I have noticed is the cooler the water, the cooler the coffee.

Do: Purchase a good vacuum carafe to pour your coffee into once it is done steeping. This will keep it tasting exactly the same as when fresh, and will keep it hot for hours. These are great things to have even if you don't plan on using a French press. Your coffee stays hot without being left on a burner, and you can take it with you. As I write this I am sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee, and my vacuum carafe. No trips to the kitchen for refills necessary. Of course a thermos will do the same thing, it's just that a carafe is more convenient. To dispense the coffee, all you have to do is push down a lever, and pour.

Don't: Don't leave your coffee in the French Press, and serve it from there. The whole idea is to stop the steeping process at the perfect point. Leave it in there, and it will continue to steep. Do it this way, and you may as well be using a percolator. And, by the way, those travel mugs that have a French press built right in are nothing but useless snobbery, for the same reason.

Myth: You shouldn't put the plunger assembly in the pot until you are ready to plunge. Unless you like cold coffee, this is just silly. Heat rises, and it rises out of the carafe all the more quickly if you don't put the plunger assembly in while steeping. In fact, you will notice that the grounds actually float, so what I like to do is to put the plunger in immediately, and even press down on it just enough to make sure all the grounds are under the water level. This keeps the heat in, and doesn't waste coffee.

Do: Keep your French press and your other equipment clean, especially while you are still experimenting. The brown buildup that results after almost every pot contains bitter oils, which will throw off the flavors of the next batch. I'm not saying that you need to dismantle it and run it through the dishwasher after every pot, but you certainly may. If you choose just to rinse and wipe the plunger after use, just remember that those oils also build up in the crevices between the plunger parts.

Don't: Don't switch brands or roasts of coffee until you have your method perfected with the first one. Unless, of course, you are prepared to start your experiment over.

Myth: You should pay attention when "experts" say things like "Never steep your coffee for more than five minutes." Wrong! It's your coffee, steep it for as long or short a time as tastes good to you. Use what the experts say as a starting point, then adjust one thing at a time from there, until you like the way your coffee tastes.

A French press certainly can make the best coffee you have ever tasted. However, it won't do it automatically. If all this sounds like too much work for your morning cup of joe, for you, it probably is, and in that case, I'd stick with the drip-brewer. However, if you are willing to put in the effort, eventually you will be able to make the perfect cup of coffee, every time, with your French press.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How to avoid overcooking a roast

I was going to save this tip for another day, but, well, I have time, and it's important, soooo...

One of the major obstacles the cook encounters in roasting meat, whether it be a beef roast, or a chicken or a turkey, or anything else, is knowing when to stop.

This is further compounded by roasting instructions found in typical recipes: "Roast for three hours at 350°," or "Roast for ten minutes per pound." What's wrong with these instructions? Well, first of all, the author of the recipe has no way of telling how hot your oven really is when you set it to 350°. Ovens vary pretty widely in this regard. The other is that different shapes require different roasting times. If your roast is shaped like a ball, it is generally going to take longer to roast than one that is shaped more like a hockey puck, all else being equal.

The way to nullify these problems is to cook to temperature, rather than by time.

And, of course, to do that, you need a thermometer. You probably already have a meat thermometer tucked away in a drawer somewhere. And, you likely rarely use it, because you can't read it with your oven door closed, and in any event, if you went by the time suggested in your recipe, you may have discovered that all it is useful for is to tell you your meat is overcooked.

Polder Digital Thermometer

The digital thermometer above solves these problems. The probe goes into the meat, and into the oven, while the readout stays outside the oven and gets its reading through the cable the probe is attached to. No more trouble reading the thermometer.

Also, the digital thermometer's computerized brain can be set to beep when the target temperature is reached. So, for example, you put the probe into the thigh meat of your turkey, and set the alarm to sound when the turkey reaches 165°. Turkey gets done, thermometer goes beep-beep-beep, you pull the bird out of the oven. Simple as that, and no more dry, stringy breast meat. Ever again.

Of course this also works to accurately cook beef roasts to medium rare, pork roasts to done but still juicy, and so on. Most items that we roast are fairly expensive, and often reserved for special occasions. It can be heartbreaking to have them come out overcooked and dry. Imagine never roasting anything that didn't come out perfect, ever again.

Want even more convenience?

Wireless digital thermometers have all the advantages above, plus one substantial one. The readout isn't connected to the probe, so you can take it with you. Why would you want to? Well, say you are roasting something in the oven, but don't want to stay in the kitchen to monitor it. Just take the readout with you, and when it beeps, dash back to the kitchen, and take your roast out. It can also be quite useful when barbecuing, (not grilling, which is cooking over direct heat, and is what most people are actually doing when they think they are barbecuing.) as you can go inside the house, and still monitor the progress of whatever is in the bbq. This, of course, is also a useful thing when you are having a party, and want to mingle with your guests instead of monitoring your food.

As kitchen equipment goes, digital thermometers are pretty inexpensive, but they can make all the difference in your ability to cook expensive meats perfectly, every time. This is one gadget that I consider indispensable.

A Tip!

It occurs to me that the name of this site implies there will be tips here. Go figure. :) But so far what I've posted has been mainly a bunch of information about getting your kitchen easier to cook in, and taking care of your tools.

So, here's one of the best tips I've encountered: BRINE STUFF!

Why? Because it will be juicier and taste better. Instead of just seasoning the outside of your meat, the seasonings and flavors wind up dispersed throughout. And the salt will have caused the cells in the meat to absorb moisture.

I have witnessed people who waxed rhapsodic about how brining changed their turkey breast meat from dry and chewy to moist and wonderful. However, if you are used to dry and stringy breast meat, you are overcooking. All things being equal, brining will certainly help. But, stop overcooking, and the results will be nothing short of amazing. I'll get into how not to overcook in another post, however. Anyway...

What can you brine? Well, just about any kind of meat, but what seems to benefit the most (or at least the most dramatically) is white meat. Chicken, turkey, pork, and even some fish and shellfish.

What is a brine? It can be as simple as salt dissolved in water. Or it can be a good deal more complex, with a bunch of seasonings, and the water replaced with something like orange juice, or even wine. All it absolutely needs to be a brine, though, is some kind of water-based liquid, and salt. (Table salt; save your fancier varieties for when it matters.)

How hard is brining to do? It's almost ridiculously simple. A typical brine for pork would be 1/4 cup salt to 8 cups water. You mix this up, put it, along with your pork, in a large ziplock bag in the fridge. How long you should leave it there depends on the thickness of the meat. A roast you could leave overnight, while chops will only take three to four hours.

Shrimp benefits enormously from brining. Since they are so small, this is generally done more quickly in a stronger solution: 1/4 cup salt to 4 cups of cold water, for each pound of shrimp. Brine for 30 minutes. For added sweetness, which goes well with shrimp, you can also add 1/4 cup sugar, but this is not really necessary. Sugar or not, this will turn out plump, tender, juicy shrimp. Shrimp brining, by the way, can be done in a bowl on the counter, since it happens so quickly.

For the holiday turkey, brining can be an amazing thing. Use the same ratio of salt to water as the pork brine, but of course in a much larger quantity. Or, it can be done for a shorter time with twice the amount of salt at about one hour per pound. Since over-brining is possible, which makes the meat too salty, I prefer the weaker brine, over a longer period. I often thaw my bird in the brine solution. If you do this, make sure that your water never gets over 40 degrees, however. In my climate, this merely means that I must keep the container outside, making sure animals can't get into it. If you live in a climate where this is not feasable however, often a camping cooler makes a good brining container. Use a thermometer, and ice in the brine, and replenish the ice when necessary.

For many, this is enough information to begin brining, and is certainly enough to start producing juicy, flavorful meat.
However, if you know anything about me, you will know that I have to know why it works.

So, here is the admittedly over-simplified explanation. Cells, even no longer living ones, want the salinity (saltiness) of the liquid outside them to match the salinity of the water inside them. When you put meat in a brine, first the cells will release water to dilute the salinity of the brine. This is why packing meat in dry salt dries it out.

But, since a brine is a liquid, they will reabsorb the brine to replace the lost water. So, each cell of your meat will absorb some of the brine, and, of course, the flavor of that brine. And since brine is more flavorful than water, the meat will be more flavorful.

Brining is an easy way to make your cooking taste better and be more juicy. Try it. :)