All posts in Notes from the Kitchen

How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home

How to Brew a Better Cup of Coffee at Home - the science and art of making coffee. From http://spoonandknife.com

This is about what I have learned about how to brew a better cup of coffee at home. I’m not going to cover espresso-based drinks. It has been awhile since I wrote about this, and I’ve changed a few things and learned a great deal since then. This is the current State of the Coffee. Here goes:
 

The Four Ms of Espresso (and, well, not-espresso)

Part of the lore of good espresso is summed up by the Italians in four words: Miscela (the coffee blend) , Macinacaffe (the grinder), Macchina (the machine) and Mano (the hand or the barista). The same is true for brewed coffee as well, really. Those four elements, in no particular order, cover everything needed to make a great cup of coffee. (Well, with a little fudging.)
 

Miscela – The Blend

Grinding coffee beans at home

Buy quality beans, only what you can go through in about a week or so, and only whole bean. Really, that’s the basis of it. Local coffee shops are popping up all over, so try to get to know your caffeinated neighbor and support the local economy. Chances are, they are either roasting great beans themselves or are sourcing something much fresher than you’ll find in the grocery store or mega-chain.

Beyond that, try all sorts of coffee and get to know your own preferences. I’ve found that I tend to prefer coffee from Central America over the Middle East or Africa. Generally. Well, often, anyway. There isn’t a “top” or “best” growing region, they all show different characteristics of the soil, elevation, climate, et cetera.

I said there’d be a little fudging. As long as we’re talking about base ingredients, water deserves a mention. Always as filtered and pure as you can get. There is such a thing as “too” pure, but that’s mainly medical-grade. I most often use the water from my fridge filter, out of convenience. But remember when I said to make friends with the local coffee shops? When I really have my act together, I take an empty beer growler (never used for beer!) and fill up with water from them. They put in a high end filtration system when they built out the new cafe, calibrated to have a specific amount of dissolved minerals and stuff in the water, which makes it awesome to brew with.
 

Macinacaffe -The Grinder

Baratza Vario-W Coffee GrinderIt’s stunning how important this is to the quality of your coffee. I don’t care how you choose to brew or what coffee you use, the grinder WILL have a significant impact.

Basically, grinding is the act of smashing a coffee bean into bits. Try this experiment: Put a handful of beans in a plastic bag and bash them with a pot. Is every piece the same size? Definitely not. Some pieces will be larger chunks, others closer to dust.

When you brew coffee, you’re soaking the grounds in hot water trying to pull out all the flavor that you want without pulling out too much (which is bitter). The grind size affects this; smaller pieces extract faster than larger ones, so by the time the big pieces are done, the little ones are way overdone. Good grinding is therefore not just about grinding a size right for the brew method, but grinding as evenly and precisely to that size.

Cheap grinders just don’t perform that well (and there are good ones aren’t that expensive). This is where I’ve made the most significant upgrade at home, purchasing the Baratza Vario-W Coffee Grinder, after some obsessive research.
 

Macchina – The Machine

This is the part that always gets the glamour and focus. Truth is, with a bit of understanding of what goes on in extraction and why, almost any contraption can make good coffee. Broadly, I put brewing methods and devices into three categories:

  • Immersion- these methods soak or steep coffee grounds in water. They are usually the fullest bodied coffee, but often cloudier or bitter from tiny coffee particles. Examples include the French Press and the Clever Coffee Dripper but also, with a leap from hot to cold, includes Toddy and other cold-process brews as well.
  • Filtered – This includes most of the traditional coffee machines. Hot water is passed over ground coffee through some kind of filter. Examples include auto-drip makers as well as Chemex or nearly any other pour over setup.
  • Pressure – Not so different from filtered, but makes for a sufficiently different drink that I put it into its own category. Hot water is forced at pressure through grounds. Examples: Moka Pot, espresso.

One type of brewing isn’t “better” than another; it really does come down to taste and what characteristics of the coffee are desirable. Filtered brewing tends to bring out the brighter, more subtle flavors and acidity. Immersion methods tend to extract more and highlight the deeper, richer flavors and have a stronger body or mouth feel. Think of it like the three-band equalizer on a car stereo. Filtered pour-over methods are like turning up the high or treble side and dialing back a bit on the bass. Immersion brewing cranks up the bass and mids, which squash out the high frequencies. Pressured brewing like espresso is like turning up all three at the same time.

Basic Home Brew setup for making Coffee
 

Mano – That’s You!

This is the part that ties everything else together. First off, the “best” coffee is whatever matches your taste and preferences. If what you love is waking up to a Mr. Coffee pot of drip coffee, or a boiling kettle and a jar of instant coffee, then by all means have it your way! The point of all this is to think more critically and holistically about coffee, to have more options at the ready, and to understand a bit more how all these factors affect what goes into the cup.

That said, some brewing is more technical or requires more finesse and dexterity. Much has been published on the ways to pour water into a Hario V60 to achieve an even extraction, for example; this is beyond the scope of this writing. Depending on what kind of coffee you are brewing for, read up, watch videos, and talk to the folks at your local coffee haunt for tips and advice.
 

Some Basics To Get Going

Using a variable temperature electric kettle to get water to the right temperature

Now, welcome to my coffee ritual. This varies a bit depending on a whim really, but should illustrate the concepts above.

  • I do most of my brewing now in a Clever Coffee Dripper. This is a hybrid that brews immersion-style, but filters the coffee at the end like a pour-over. I really prefer the deepness of brewing like this, but it solves the bitter grit or cloudiness problem of a French press.
  • Good beans, good water are key. A standard dose, and where I would start with a new brewer, is 6O grams of coffee per liter of water. (A scale is truly your best friend here, regardless of how you brew. Consistency matters.) I find I like mine a little stronger, so I go to 32g per 500ml of water.
  • Coffee generally brews best around 195-205 F over 3:30-4:00 minute brew time. This is most certainly a work of trial and error to hit this range and decide whether it’s more pleasing to be on the high side or the low. Using a Variable Temperature Electric Kettle will make getting your water to the right temperature much easier.
  • Bloom. Bloom is what happens when you first introduce hot water To coffee grounds. The trapped gases (mainly carbon dioxide) in the coffee beans is released. I pour over just enough water to wet the grounds and let it sit for 20-30 seconds. You should be able to watch it bubble up. Then add the rest of the brew water. The science behind this is that the gas otherwise forms a vapor barrier that keeps water from making contact with the coffee; what I know is that doing this yields a better and more even consistent extraction.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

I said back at the start that this is my current state of affairs. Fact is, There is a LOT to learn about coffee, and our understanding of science and technique is constantly evolving. A year from now, I maybe doing some thing completely different. The fun is in the journey.

I hope your daily cup gets a little better for reading this; please ask questions in the comments!

Creating Prep Lists to Make Your Holiday Meals Stress-Free

Essential Tips - How to Create a Prep List to Make Your Holiday Meals Stress Free

This year, I cooked the Easter holiday meal at my in-laws’ house. I decided to do as much of the prep as possible at home, and do the final cooking there, for two reasons. First, I know where everything is in my kitchen (prep bowls, mixing bowls, storage containers, et cetera) and second, to make cooking in their kitchen as calm as possible.

I wanted to share about the menu and the prep that went into this meal. I’ve read in many places about the importance of being organized, but nobody seems to have written about HOW to put together prep lists. Let this be the first in a series I’m working on discussing how to prep. Bear with me, this is a bit of thinking out loud – blind leading the blind and all – but here goes.

Preparing the Menu

First off, the menu. Holiday meals are a bastion of tradition, well-worn setpieces that mustn’t waver. Last year, after our meal, we decided to change up the feel a bit to reflect a new balance in our diet (read: more vegetables, more meat, less starch). After some negotiation, we settled on this:

MENU:
Baked Ham
Baked Sweet Potatoes, with spring onions, bacon, butter, cinnamon
Roast Broccoli, with garlic
Seared Mushrooms, with shallots, scallions, garlic, butter
Halved Strawberries
Cheese Plate

Right. That gives me some focus and, more importantly, a grocery list I could stick in my head, ticking off what I already had at home and what I needed to go buy.

After the grocery store, it was prep time. I wanted to have everything as ready as I could get it, so that all I had to do Sunday morning was to apply heat and combine. I didn’t want to be reheating finished dishes, but I didn’t want to be scrambling to get things cut and prepped, either.

The Preparation of Each Dish

Oddly, looking over my notes, this is the one part I didn’t make a list for. Rather, I had a list, but it all stayed in my head. Let’s talk, in shorthand, about what goes into each dish on the menu.

BAKED HAM
heat and serve | 20 min ish per pound | 10 pound ham | so about 3 hours since their oven cooks a bit fast

BAKED SWEET POTATOES
mince spring onions | dice bacon | render/cook bacon | wrap potatoes in foil | bake for about an hour

ROAST BROCCOLI
separate florets | cut to uniform size | slice garlic | toss broccoli with olive oil | roasting pan, scatter garlic over | roast 450F 10-15min

SEARED MUSHROOMS
clean mushrooms | remove stem | halve mushrooms | mince shallot | mince scallions | toss mushrooms in olive oil | sear on HOT pan | cut heat to medium | return mushrooms to pan and add shallots butter scallions | warm through

HALVED STRAWBERRIES
remove leaves | hull berries | cut in half

CHEESE PLATE
unwrap cheese | put on plate

This was the mental checklist I used to keep track of where I was, how far I could go, and what needed to wait for the morning. Order matters – in these instructions, I’ve tried to bring as much prep tasks earlier in the sequence to not lose anything (as opposed to more conventionally saying, say, “Add minced shallots to the mushrooms” – oh, I needed to mince them, did I?).

In preparation, just about everything got cut and packed. Spring onions (same as scallions, here, but it sounds cooler to use both words on the menu, so…), broccoli, mushrooms, shallots, strawberries – everything cut and ready to go. None of that would suffer for being cut ahead of time – for example, I cleaned the mushroom caps with a damp paper towel only to avoid soggy, waterlogged mushrooms.

Choreographing the Actual Execution of the Work

The other prep list I did write down was a timing sheet. This is a new thing for me to do, but the trick is to think not of each dish individually and how long it takes, but look across them to weave the timing together. This was a huge part of why Sunday morning was calm – at any given time, I knew where I was across the whole feast, not just one dish.

10:00 AM: Put ham in oven – 3 hours @ 325F
10:00 AM: Cook bacon bits for potatoes
12:00 PM: Bake Sweet Potatoes
12:30 PM: Sear Mushrooms
12:45 PM: Prep Broccoli
01:00 PM: Remove Ham
01:00 PM: Remove Sweet Potatoes
01:00 PM: Raise oven temp to 450F
01:00 PM: Broccoli in oven
01:05 PM: Finish Mushrooms with shallots and butter
01:15 PM: Serve

The thought process: The ham’s going to take the longest and hog (ha!) the oven the most. It really determines the meal time. Behind that, the potatoes will take an hour, so they go in for the last hour. The broccoli needs the oven, but at a much higher temperature and for a short time, so it can cook while the ham rests. The bacon is a prep item – I just didn’t want to chill it overnight – so it can happen early, and the mushrooms need a pan on the stove. I’ve cooked mushrooms like this a few times recently, and the searing step seems to take longer than I expect, so best to try and do that before the ham comes out – it’ll finish with the butter and shallots while the ham rests.

I won’t say that I followed this to the minute, but I wasn’t far off. About the only step I didn’t have on here is to wrap the potatoes in foil, and I didn’t factor in any time for washing dishes (that happened, as much as it could, in between tasks). With only a couple of edits – namely, I left the potatoes in with the broccoli – this is how it went down.

Making this list – and putting times to it – is a great benefit for two reasons. First, it is a roadmap for the effort, so I know where I am and what’s left to do at any time. Second, it forced me to think through the choreography – what food is in what pan on what oven rack or burner at any time. This is why the timing matters – I’ve made interwoven lists before but without timing, and have had to do some fancy shuffling when two foods wanted the same pot or burner to follow the plan.

The Don’t Forget This List

Finally, the last list I made on Saturday for prep is the don’t-forget-this list. Everything I might want to have from my own kitchen needed to be on a list so I wouldn’t forget anything. There were only a couple of additions not shown (a sauté pan that the ham cooked in – I wanted the roasting pan for the broccoli – and a cast iron skillet for the mushrooms). Let’s just say I’m not always the sharpest in the morning, so having an external backup was a very good idea.

Bring along:

  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Ham
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Bacon
  • Green Onions
  • Strawberries
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Shallots
  • Cinnamon
  • Salt
  • Knives
  • Thermometer
  • Olive Oil
  • Garlic

The resulting food went unphotographed, but it was delicious. Everything was hot, done at the same time, and best of all, I was relaxed throughout. THAT is a first for me.

Top 10 Kitchen Essentials

Ten Kitchen Essentials

Recently, a friend of ours who is setting up a new kitchen asked us about our Top 10 Kitchen Essentials – the must have items to outfit a new kitchen. Here is my top list:

  1. A comfortable, sharp chef’s knife. This is your workhorse. It should be as long as is comfortable for your grip – usually 8-10 inches is about right. Keep it SHARP – that’s far more important than how much you paid for the knife itself – but more on that below. Get hands on with knives before you buy them – go peek at a friend’s house or grip them in the store. If you’re afraid of the knife, it’ll cut you. You have to be comfortable with it.
  2. A comfortable, sharp paring knife. Usually 3-4″. This is your fine detail knife, useful for smaller or more precise tasks. Again, keep it SHARP. Seriously, a dull knife is one of the most dangerous things in a kitchen – they’re exponentially more likely to skip off food and cut you, and the cuts they do leave are more like a tear than a cut. Sharp knives go where you want them to, and if they do happen to nick you, they do so almost politely – cleanly and quick to heal.
  3. A honing steel. This is a metal or ceramic rod that helps maintain a knife’s edge. An example is this ceramic rod by Messermeister. A honing steel doesn’t sharpen your knife, in that it doesn’t actually take metal off the blade, but it helps keep the edge true and working well until the knife is truly dull. Use this often – a few swipes before getting started. When this doesn’t get your knife sharp, it’s time to find a good professional and let them put a great edge back on your knife. (This is usually every 6-12 months, depending on use.)
  4. A skillet. 10 inch is a good all-purpose size. I like stainless steel, with a heavy base, to keep the heat even. (Something along the lines of this 10″ Cuisinart skillet could work great.) Since this is a top-10 list, I’m skipping non-stick skillets – regular metal is more versatile. Humanity survived without non-stick surfaces for years and ate well.
  5. A good pot. 4 quart or greater. May not be large enough for boiling pasta, but it’ll handle all sorts of soups, sauces, and the like. Again, make sure it’s sturdy, not flimsy – avoid aluminum, as it can react with acidic foods and this is your one good pot for anything. Stainless or enameled cast iron are my favorites. Something similar to this 4 quart pot from Cuisinart would work well.
  6. Cutting boards. This is your work surface; don’t skimp on size. There is no definitive scientific evidence that I’ve seen on whether wood or plastic is better; basically, both will perform well as long as you care for them. Clean promptly in hot soapy water (plastic ones can generally go through the dishwasher). I like having two, one specifically for raw/uncooked meats and one for everything else. Avoid glass, marble, or other exotic materials, as all they do is dull your sharp knife.
  7. Instant read thermometer. Yes, I put this on my top ten list. I own the Cadillac of instant read thermometers, the Thermapen (in British Racing Green). It isn’t cheap, but it’s the gold standard. For years, though, I used another instant read thermometer from Thermoworks, the RT301WA. This thing is a workhorse. The main difference is that it takes 5-6 seconds to read instead of 3, and it’s about one fifth of the price of the Thermapen. Use this religiously to test any meat for being done, whether bread is cooked all the way through, whether the water is hot enough to poach – really, once you get in the habit, you’ll find you use it all the time.
  8. Utensils. It’s a bit of a cheat to put a category item here instead of listing things out, but these are incidentals. Have a good spoon, solid and slotted. Have a couple of big heat-resistant spatulas. Have a turner/flipper spatula. Have a couple of whisks, one French-style (slender and long) and one balloon-style (same length, but much wider) – they’re used for different things. (Use the skinnier one to mix things, use the balloon whisk to beat air into things like whipped cream or egg whites.)
  9. Mixing bowls. Have a couple of good big ones. It’s easier to use a bowl that is too big than a bowl that’s too small. Plus, they double as a giant salad bowl for when, like me, you decide to binge on lettuce. (It happens.)
  10. Side towels. Kitchen towels dedicated to wiping up spills, quick cleaning of counters, and as a pot/pan-holder. Wash after every use. I’m kind of obsessive about my kitchen linens, but they really are great tools to have.
  11. Bonus: A totem. I’m stealing the term from an Alton Brown interview, but it’s something I’ve done for a long time. This is the thing that gets you in the right frame of mind to be in the kitchen. For me, for a long time, it was a bobble-head tiki god that Christine bought for me at Target one day. It sat next to the cooktop (at my insistence – I admit, it matched exactly none of our décor), and I would tap it on the head before any food met pan. Currently, that guy is in a box from the move, and I don’t have a great home for him. Instead, now, it’s my best blue pinstriped apron I picked up in England, with a side towel hanging from the waistband. Putting that on is the difference from I’m-going-to-go-heat-something-quick and I’m-serious-about-what-I’m cooking. It’s like any other uniform – putting it on is putting on your game face.

Spoon & Knife, Launching Soon!

This is the future home of great cooking content from Christine and Mike. After nearly 9 years of marriage, thousands of blog posts, and countless meals together, it is time that we share them with you in one place.

Update (2/14/13): Everything is set up behind the scenes, the posts from my blog & Mike’s blog are moved over, the logo is done, and as soon as I get the photos switched out here, we will be back to our regular posting schedule! YAY!