A good cup of Joe . . . it’s delicious, it’s comforting, and it carries that jolt of caffeine we sometimes need to nudge us over our next hurdle. This popular brew, however, is not merely a reliable stimulant—it’s also an entirely functional ingredient that works in a variety of dishes, including savory plates. Although coffee has long served as a classic flavor for desserts, in everything from affogato to tiramisu and all mocha inventions in between, many contemporary chefs prize the bean’s rich nutty taste and bright acidity in savory applications.
Michael Lomonaco, chef and partner of Porter House in New York City, considers a strong shot of espresso to be an integral ingredient in his barbecue sauce. He also finely grinds coffee and uses it as a rub for ribs. “I love coffee for the earthy, herbal notes it adds to grilled meat,” he comments. Ian Chalermkittichai, chef of Kittichai, also in New York, glazes duck in coffee and chile, then serves it with collard greens braised in coffee, cinnamon, and anise. TV Chef Emeril Legasse has dedicated two full shows to cooking with coffee, where he too has coffee-glazed a duck, “bammed” baby back ribs in a coffee-Bourbon barbecue sauce, and kicked a mole sauce up a notch with coffee. No longer relegated to the pastry station of the kitchen, coffee is much like chocolate, remarks Norman Van Aken, chef-owner of Norman’s in Coral Gables, Florida, “ It’s an ingredient that can straddle both sides of the [menu when] making great dishes.”
There is nothing namby-pamby about the smoky, nutty tones and brightly acid twang of coffee. That’s why it is best used with other strong-flavored foods including beef, ham, lamb, duck, chilies, hearty greens, and sweet spices such as cinnamon, anise, or cloves. But surprisingly, even when used in strong doses, coffee tends to transform rather than overwhelm. When added prudently, coffee-spiked savory dishes don’t taste like coffee at all, but something uniquely complex; flavor profiles of the finished dishes usually emerge extraordinarily different from the individual ingredients that went into them.
Most chefs approach coffee in savory dishes as they would a spice or in the same manner as they would cooking with wine. Perhaps this is because many of the properties of coffee are like those of wine. Tasting techniques, rules, regulations, descriptions, and terms overlap. Coffee tasters slurp, smell, and scrutinize just as sommeliers do. They describe different blends and varietals with terms like crisp, buttery, fruity, and even winey. They examine mouth feel, body, aroma, and acidity. It follows, therefore, that just as chefs would choose the right wine for cooking, they should pick the right coffee too; poaching salmon, for example, in bold Ethiopian Yrgacheffe coffee makes no more culinary sense than braising beef in a Riesling.
Taking the Heat
When the bland little green seed known as a coffee bean is exposed to the heat of roasting, its sugars become caramelized, and natural aromatic compounds are activated, releasing the deep, nutty flavors inside. Darker roasts, such as French, Italian, or espresso, have a more robust flavor, but lighter roasts will better reveal the complexities and subtleties of an individual coffee varietal.
Many elements influence how a specific coffee bean will end up tasting; soil, climate, altitude, or method of processing, but the two most important factors are species and the region of origin. Commercial coffees are culled from two distinct species: Robusta, harvested in tropical lowlands, has a very high yield, but harsh, unsophisticated flavor, and high caffeine content. Arabica is grown at high altitudes, where the smaller beans develop complex, refined flavors, and lower caffeine content.
The three major areas where Arabica is cultivated include Indonesia, East Africa, and parts of Latin America; each region produces varietals with distinctive characteristics. Indonesian Arabica coffees are characterized by bold richness; beans from the island of Sumatra are earthy and nutty, with concentrated flavor and full body. Those from Sulawesi, although still earthy, are also elegant, smooth, and complex.
Coffees from East Africa and nearby Arabia tend to be floral and fruity, with light clean acid. Kenya AA beans have strong overtones of blackberry, black currant, and an almost tannic touch of red wine. Tanzanian Peaberry, with its single seed, is sharp and winey. Ethiopian Yrgacheffe is spicy, bold, and floral, whereas Harrar has strong hints of rum and a tart, balanced acidity.
Latin American coffees are generally characterized by bright acidity and a lighter body. Colombian Supremo, with slightly more heft than most Latin Americans, is smooth, with a tinge of nuttiness. Costa Rican, with milder acid, has elements of peach, apricot, and chocolate. Guatemala Antigua, perhaps the most complex of Latin American coffees, has fine soft acidity and smoky nuances of cocoa, spice, and nuts. Brazilian Bourbon is soft with traces of cocoa and nuts. Mexican Chiapas and Nicaraguan have bold, sharp acidity. With a natural sweetness, Jamaica Blue Mountain is extremely smooth and mellow. Despite its origin, Hawaiian Kona is often grouped with Latin American coffees; a light bodied, aromatic varietal, Kona suggests butter and caramel with a smooth, acidic finish.
Ham or steak with red eye gravy is by far the most famous savory recipe that uses coffee. Popular throughout the Southern United States, this truck-stop and diner classic is served from breakfast to dinner and through the wee hours of the morning, with the gravy blanketing biscuits and chicken-fried steak. It’s a dish purported to cure heartaches and hangovers the way chicken soup successfully treats influenza and the common cold. In its simplest form, a slab of country ham is griddled in a skillet, then the juices and residue in the pan are mixed with a little flour, deglazed with a cup of coffee and boiled down to thicken. Old-time chuck wagon cooks used this recipe with a slab of beef to make skillet-fried “cowboy steaks” on the trail.
In modern-day versions, the coffee gravy is often enhanced with bacon, brown sugar, vinegar, and a little Worcestershire sauce—a formula that also works well as a braising liquid for brisket or chuck. Chef Terry Conlan of Lake Austin Spa Resort dusts his cowboy steak in a rub of ground coffee, garlic, and pepper. He then skillet roasts the steak and deglazes with brewed coffee and beef stock. Conlan finishes the gravy with brown sugar and jalapeno jelly.
Brewed coffee can also be a very effective part of a marinade. Jurg Munch, chef-owner of David Paul’s Lahaina Grill in Maui, takes advantage of the mellow acidity in locally grown Kona coffee. He uses both strongly brewed coffee and cracked beans with cabernet sauvignon, brandy, and herbes de Provence to marinate rack of lamb.
Unlike stocks, wines, and other liquids, which get more concentrated flavors through reduction, coffee can take on an unpleasant, astringent quality when boiled or simmered. “The trick is to balance the bitterness of strong coffee,” Van Aken claims. For his Guinea Hen with Cuban coffee, Port wine, and Xocopoli chocolate, he reduces Port, then coffee, then rich poultry stock, finishing the sauce with a knob of sweet butter. In a traditional Thai interplay of sweet and bitter, Chalermkittichai slow cooks duck in a glaze of finely ground coffee, palm sugar, coriander, and red chile. He serves it with collard greens braised with anise, cinnamon, and coffee. It’s a recipe that works equally well with pork. Ong pounds and fries duck breast into a crispy schnitzel, tops it with lightly dressed greens and a sauce of caramelized sugar, coffee, ginger, and soy sauce. He prefers the intensity of coffee that has been double-brewed, but cautions that this should be done with a watchful eye and palate. Overbrewing can be bitter, and overheating should be avoided at all costs.
Moving from the mug to the menu, coffee shows versatility in so many culinary situations, sweet or savory. To take advantage of its unique qualities in cooking, consider the advice of Van Aken: “I try not to stereotype ingredients any more than one should people. Think of the ingredients in terms of their characteristics—not the roles they have played in history—and you can begin an exciting new approach to cuisine.”
When using coffee in desserts, pastry chefs need a strong flavoring medium, one that will let the full flavor of the bean shine through. Many cooks know the trick of mixing a teaspoon or so of instant coffee and a little water to create an intensely flavored paste for icings, mousses, cake batters, and the like. But the taste of this potion can be on the crude side, because instant coffee is made strictly from Robusta beans. Fortunately, there are several high-quality coffee extracts on the market, and they are the choice of many professional pastry chefs.
For do-it-yourselfers, Will Goldfarb, pastry chef and owner of Room 4 Desserts, in Manhattan, has devised one of the most erudite techniques of extracting flavor out of coffee beans using a cold infusion. To obtain an extremely smooth and pure extract, he sets whole coffee beans in cream, alcohol, or a very light syrup of 90 percent water and 10 percent sugar, and refrigerates the mixture for at least 24 hours. “The liquids can absorb flavor for up to seven days,” he notes. “After that, the aromatic elements break down. I have even used this method to infuse coffee into egg whites.”
Technically, brewed coffee is an infusion, and whether you are perking a pot for your morning mug, or braising a pot roast for dinner, some strict rules apply:
1. The mindset of the barista, the pastry chef, and the pharmacist are remarkably similar. Exact measurements, treatments, and conditions are always needed to produce a consistent product. The perfect cup for drinking starts with a formula of two tablespoons of coffee to every six ounces of water, but many chefs prefer a stronger infusion for cooking. You may want to use a higher ratio of coffee or a pressurized method of brewing, such as espresso.
2. Make sure that the coffee is fresh. Coffee beans start getting old as soon as they are tipped out of the roaster, and air begins to oxidize the aromatic elements in the coffee oils. After the beans are ground, this deterioration speeds up exponentially. A decline in flavor can actually be detected after just 30 minutes of exposure. For best results, use whole beans and grind them just before you want to use them. Preground coffee should be used immediately after the package is opened. If coffee must be stored, do so in an airtight container kept at room temperature. It should be useable for one week but certainly no more than two.
3. Choose the correct grind for your method. If the grind is too fine, it will over extract, absorbing too much water and producing a bitter cup. A grind that is too coarse will under extract, resulting in a weak, flaccid brew.
4. Coffee is more than 98 percent H2O, so use fresh spring or filtered water. Filtering the water not only improves flavor, but will also extend the life of your equipment.
Kona Coffee Roasted Rack of Lamb
By Jurg Munch, chef-owner, David Pauls Lahaina Grill, Maui, Hawaii
Whole Kona coffee beans 1/4 cup
Black peppercorns 1 Tbsp
Brown sugar 3 Tbsp
Herbes de Provence 1/2 Tbsp
Salt 1 1/2 tsp
Strong Kona coffee 3/4 cup
Cabernet Sauvignon, plus more to deglaze 1/4 cup
Brandy 1/4 cup
Vegetable oil 1/4 cup
Rack of lamb, trimmed of all excess fat 2 large (8-rib)
Mirepoix 1 cup
Balsamic vinegar splash
Cold butter, chopped 1 to 2 Tbsp
1. To make marinade, in heavy-bottomed saucepan, lightly toast coffee beans and black pepper. Remove from pan, and with a heavy object, crack beans and pepper together.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine cracked beans and pepper, the brown sugar, Herbes de Provence, and salt. Stir in coffee, Cabernet, and brandy. Continue mixing and add oil in a slow, steady stream.
3. Cover lamb racks with marinade and refrigerate until ready to cook. For best results, marinate lamb overnight.
4. In a skillet over medium high heat, sear both sides of lamb. Roast lamb and mirepoix in a 400°F oven for 8 to 10 minutes for medium rare. Make a sauce by deglazing, reducing, and straining pan juices and vegetables, adding a splash of balsamic vinegar while simmering. Just before serving, stir a few pieces butter into sauce. Cut lamb into chops and serve with sauce, garlic-mashed potatoes, and seasonal grilled vegetables.