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Cooking with Coffee – More Than Just Coffee Flavor

cooking with coffee filled espresso pots de creme cups in water bath

When cooking with coffee, does it matter which variety you choose? Hell, yes — sometimes.

I’ve been cooking with coffee and experimenting with the various flavors and notes in different varieties for a couple of years now, so I was pretty delighted to see an article about celebrity chefs cooking with coffee in Napa Valley. The event was sponsored by Nespresso, and asked a bunch of well-known chefs and restaurateurs to devise recipes using specific varieties of Nespresso Grand Cru coffees. First, let me say that the dishes sound absofreakinglutely devastatingly delicious. And second, that I’m pretty thrilled to see chefs taking the notion of coffee as a spice and a condiment more seriously. Thomas Keller actually sounds like he totally gets it — the idea that coffee is complex, and that there’s more than just “coffee flavor” in it. He doesn’t go quite so far as to say that different coffee varieties bring different flavors to a dish, but it’s kind of hidden in the long quote the writer pulled from him.

Here’s the thing about cooking with coffee as an ingredient. When you use high quality coffee, you get a better tasting result, but it actually goes a lot deeper than that. Every coffee has its own flavor profile, and that profile can be used to underpin the flavors in a dish in ways that highlight, mute or emphasize them. I know that probably sounds impossibly foodie-ish, but the coffee you choose really does make a difference in the flavor of the finished dish. Coffee ice cream made with any old supermarket brand is still going to taste like coffee ice cream, and it will have a lot in common flavorwise with the same recipe made with say, a monsooned Malabar from India, but you’ll taste the difference, just as you’ll taste the difference if I make the same recipe with a Kenya AA or a gorgeously tart and fruity Guatemalan coffee — which, for the record, I wouldn’t. I’d use the Guat for a granita — it doesn’t support cream as well as more chocolate-y, spicy coffees do.

And that is the key to making the most of flavor when you’re cooking with coffee. Fresh coffee — that’s fresh in every sense of the word — has very distinct flavors that vary from one variety of bean and one origin to another. It’s no different than other types of produce. Roma tomatoes and Big Boy tomatoes are both tomatoes, but they are distinctly different from each other. Apples are apples, and you can make a pie from any variety, but most experienced bakers know that McIntosh apples are lousy pie apples, while Northern Spy apples make juicy, tasty apple pie and Golden Delicious apples are especially tasty when served alongside pork. Those are the kinds of distinctions chefs are starting to make with coffee, at least when it pertains to cooking with coffee. For now, at least, it’s still a fairly rare chef who puts as much consideration into pairing brewed coffee with specific foods as they do with pairing wines, but that may happen yet.

Deb Powers has been reading about coffee, drinking coffee, brewing coffee, writing about coffee and roasting her own coffee for nearly 30 years.She confesses to being a coffee wonk and finds endless fascination in even the most meta of coffee information.
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Deb Powers (Chamie) at

Deb Powers – who has written posts on CoffeeBreak.Today.

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