Coffee As Ingredient

The Arabica bean, in particular, helps chefs create more diverse flavors

Virtually every country has its own form of coffee history, traditions, service customs and idiosyncrasies. One of the world’s most beloved and most consumed non-alcoholic beverages (along with water and tea) is rooted in the cultures of every continent. From out of huts and into the monasteries and later the social gathering places of cafes in the civilized world, the beverage is now having a new moment: coffee as ingredient.

While there are many interpretations of when coffee first emerged in society, it is thought that in the 15th century in Ethiopia a monk noticed his goats eating the berries of the plant, after which they began “buzzing” about. Out of curiosity, he took the berries back to the monastery to tinker with them, and coffee was born. While the tale may or may not be true, coffee nevertheless eventually spread to the Middle East, Persia and the Horn of Africa before moving to the Balkans, Eastern, then Western Europe, and finally the Americas.

As the culinary world looks for its next darling ingredient, coffee has emerged beyond the fad phase and is settling in as a trend in the ongoing desire for chefs to create more diverse flavors. As a cook, it’s not hard to see the connection from exploring the uses of coffee in cooking. What glorious flavors arise from my steaming cup must certainly also make for a soul-enhancing seasoning, right?

There are flavors people commonly think of when identifying food sensations, such as the usual sweet, salty, bitter and sour; but in The Elements of Taste, by Chef Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky, those four basics are expanded to include floral, herbal, spiced, aromatic, funky and bulby, among others, for a total of 14. Their categories include “tastes that push,” or heighten the other flavors in a dish (salty, sweet and picante), and “tastes that punctuate” (sharp, bitter flavors like that of horseradish).

It is not unlike the diverse vocabulary established by oenophiles to vocalize the various nuances they experience when tasting wine. And like the oyster, while there are only five varieties in the world, each area an oyster is harvested from is like the “terroir” or soil associated with land crops, as in coffee crops or vineyards. What the roaster does with it afterward is where the artistry and style comes into play.

The perfect bean to drink and cook with if low bitterness is desired is the Arabica bean, from North Africa. Cultivated at 1,300 and 1,700 meters above sea level, the extremes of super-hot days and super-cold nights allow for a far more sophisticated flavor than beans that produce the big, bitter smack of a standard cup of Joe. Arabica beans possess the intensity of flavor people desire in Italian espresso. Similar short, concentrated brews are also favored in diverse cultures such as France, Turkey, Greece and Peru. When coffee is roasted to a balanced perfection, bitterness is less noticeable and more integrated so that subtleties such as smoke, cocoa, cherry and toasted grains can provide a sensuous experience to the drinker.

When I first heard of using coffee in a recipe, it seemed like a bad idea to me. Coffee can be bitter. Why would I deliberately add bitterness to food? With sweets like chocolate, it’s a natural, but would it work for savory? It stood to reason that using the Arabica with its low-bitterness factor would be no different than choosing a particular spice or butter for its desired qualities. And so a coffee bean as an artisanal ingredient makes perfect sense.

In a beef stew, a 4-oz. shot of Arabica can add a layer of flavor in a way that is as mysterious as using the ubiquitous bay leaf. What does that thing do, anyway? A wise chef once told me, “The bay leaf is like a cello in the symphony; you only notice when it’s not there.” Smoky roasts and ribs, barbecue marinades and spice-based soups and stews can all benefit from a blast of good quality java.

But a word of caution to those who care to venture into cooking sweet or savory dishes with coffee: Unlike the alcohol that cooks out in wine or liqueurs, caffeine remains. Use it sparingly; otherwise you may find yourself buzzing around in the pasture or backyard after dinner.

Check Chef Robert Lhulier’s new website: Lhulier.com.

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