Coffee: Owners Manual Pt. 1

Coffee: Owners Manual Pt. 1


Because you only get out what you keep in.

PURCHASING

  • Buy whole beans and keep them stashed in an airtight canister. Only freeze beans for long-term storage, as each time they are removed from the freezer condensation will form, degrading the beans.
  • Beware beans in open bins, where light, air and moisture can degrade quality.


GRINDING

  • Grind immediately before brewing. Think of coffee as you would nutmeg or black pepper. It’s technically a spice full of essential oils and other volatile substances that start dissipating the moment you crack the safe (so to speak).  If you must grind ahead, consider air-proof containment such as a heavy, zip-top freezer bag with the air sucked out.
  • If you don’t have a coffee grinder or don’t want to mess with grinding, buy small batches of beans from a neighborhood roaster or shop (here are some of my favorites), have them do the grinding right then and there and use the coffee within the week. Oh, and see above note.

BREWING

  • Use enough coffee. The golden ratio for drip or press coffee brewing: 2 heaping tablespoons ground coffee for each 6 ounces fresh water. It’s a popular misconception that brewing with less coffee will give you a “lighter” brew. This is not so. Brewing with less coffee most-often results in over-extraction of the bean, and that’s what leads to bitterness. If you like weak coffee, brew full strength, then cut it in the cup with hot water. Caffeine levels drop as the roast level darkens.
  • Use fresh or filtered water. Your coffee will never be better than your water. I suggest you use filtered water or at least boil it for a couple of minutes to help drive away excess chlorine. Also, water that sits around for a long time loses its power as a solvent. So if you really love your brew, consider skipping the overnight timer function on your drip machine; eight hours is a long time to have water just hanging around.
  • Salt and Coffee: Not only does salt cut the bitterness of coffee, but it also smooths out the “stale” taste of tank-stored water. I’ve taken to adding a quarter teaspoon of kosher salt to every 6 tablespoons of grounds. That isn’t really enough to taste, but it’ll do the trick. And by the way, research has proven that salt is actually better at neutralizing bitterness than sugar.
  • Heat kills. The longer the pot sits on that heat element the faster the subtle flavor compounds in your brew go belly up. Better to brew into an insulated carafe or Thermos. If you really have to have a hotplate-style machine, go with one that has a variable hold temperature and keep it dialed down as low as it’ll go.
Alton Brown: Salt in Coffee Rule

Alton Brown: Salt in Coffee Rule

78 Comments

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  1. 1
    Al

    I’m a chemist, and I’m here to assure everyone that water loses none of it’s solvation properties upon sitting. Depending on what’s in the air where it is stored, assuming it is open, it may absorb compounds that alter the taste but it’s solvation properties are unchanged.

  2. 2
    Guilherme Carbonetti

    Water definitely does NOT lose its powers as a solvent after some time. Really, water’s been around for some billions of years, and it didn’t lose its powers yet, so why being for a couple of hours would do it?

    • 3
      Travis

      It’s just that stagnant (immobile) water becomes de-airated, and this, along with the mineral content of the water, can affect its solvating power. As a partial gas emulsion, water is able to solvate more of the fragrant chemicals.

  3. 6
    Sherry

    The typeface on your comments — light and thin — while pretty, is hard to read. It works fine on the menu choices (below) but not so much in full paragraph. Can you do something about that?

  4. 7
    K

    I use cold press during the work week. I make two quarts at a time in a covered pitcher. I grind enough beans for 12 cups of coffee, then immediately pour cool water over it. Then I let it sit for a full 48 hours. I strain it off and keep it in a lidded carafe in the fridge. Then each morning I pour it over ice and add a dallop of cream. So smooth and easy! On the weekend, I use a french press. I heat cool water to boiling in my tea kettle, pour it over a 1/4 cup of fresh ground beans. Then I let it steep for three minutes and press it out. The creamy head from French press can’t be beat. Add adobe vanilla sugar and I’m in heaven!

  5. 9
    Libby

    My daughter had typically made coffee that I considered too strong and too bitter. It didn’t have a smooth taste and I really couldn’t do anything to it to improve it. I finally told her that her coffee was just too strong and I couldn’t drink it! She is an avid Alton Brown fan (aren’t we all!) and decided to see what A.B. had to say about coffee. She made coffee for us the “A.B.” way and it was a huge success. All of us agree it is excellent coffee. We are happy to have coffee brewed the Alton Brown way. Smooth, tasty but not strong or bitter. Makes me glad to have a cup! Thanks, Alton Brown for your excellent advice on how to brew great coffee.

  6. 11
    Jeff

    Tried this this morning. It was not good. It was like drinking hot sea water, and yes I followed the recipe to the “T”. I think this is the first Alton recipe I didn’t care for. Makes me wonder if using a different brand of kosher salt would work. I used Mortons.

  7. 13
    Alisha Hester

    I miss good eats! I like to grab clips for my high school culinary class! They love you too! Gastonia NC- hope you are touring through Charlotte again!

  8. 17
    Larry

    I use a pour through funnel with a filter to make my coffee. It goes through the funnel right into my excellent travel mug.
    I bring the water to just about boiling and pour it over the grounds making sure to catch the grounds that gather on the side of the filter.
    When I have to use a drip coffee maker I add about 2 oz of water to the pot and then brew. The idea is that it prevents the brewed coffee from hitting a hot pot and tainting the brew.

  9. 18
    Wendy

    I agree with Jared. I MISS GOOD EATS! Such an entertaining AND informative show. I love knowing WHY things do what they do! Please bring it back!! PS: Cornish game hens with pearl onions and bacon, still one of our favorites!

    • 23
      Vivian

      It’s the same ratio for the salt if you’re using a percolator, just tested it. Don’t listen to the people dissing percolators by the way, they just don’t have the patience or don’t know how to do it right. I brew my coffee on vintage glass Pyrex percolators and it comes out great every time.

  10. 25
    Jared

    AB… the world is a much less enjoyable place without Good Eats. I know you’ve gone one to higher and higher feats of greatness, from the steel-clad contestant of the Iron Chef to the mafiosi-style underworld of Cutthroat Kitchen.

    But really all we want is good entertainment, good science and great food.

    Won’t you PLEASE bring back the bright spot of my week, my month, or even my year? I MISS GOOD EATS DAMMIT!

    Sorry, I won’t yell anymore. 🙂

  11. 26
    John

    I concur, roasting your own coffee is really the way to go. The green beans are quite stable before they are roasted so you can buy in bulk and save a bit of money. And you get all kinds of geek cred…

  12. 27
    Hannah

    LOVE it. I know that when you buy beans, you want to make sure there’s a roast date on the bag/container. Coffee is always at it’s best to consume around 2 – 14 days (give or take) off-roast because of the “degassing” phase the beans go through post-roast. Not too early, not too late. Although, I will say that I haven’t always had TERRIBLE experiences with stale coffee, once it gets to over a month or two old, it’s rancid. (There have been no discoveries of old coffee affecting your heath, though.)

    Also, water sitting around or not, you should make sure your water has an appropriate amount of minerals in it. I buy a water filter that ADDS minerals back into the water after it’s purified. If you use water that’s completely sterile, you’ll get coffee that tastes flat and/or lacks character. Don’t use distilled if you want your coffee to reach it’s potential.

    Once last thing; GET A GOOD GRINDER, EVERYONE. A top-of-the-line coffee machine will not compensate for a crappy grinder. What happens is the coffee grounds become inconsistent from one another (big and small coffee particles in one), leaving you with a brew that is both over-extracted AND under-extracted. No one likes that.

  13. 28
    Jack

    The caffeine content in brewed coffee does not vary by roast level enough to speak about. The light roast = more caffeine In your body is a myth.

  14. 29
    Matt

    I woke up this morning to find that all of the water that’s been sitting around since the beginning of time was no longer a solvent!

  15. 30
    Rick

    Good comments however (having been in chemical R&D and teaching college level chemistry for a number of years) I would question the comment that water loses its power of solvency after sitting overnight.

  16. 31
    Tim

    Alton, have you tried the Aeropress coffee maker? You’ll love it! It allows you to control the thermodynamics and extraction rate so you get the fullest, richest coffee without any bitterness. Salt is a terrible thing to do to coffee.

    • 32
      Brian B.

      Thermodynamics of Coffee is a subject that must have eluded me. I wasn’t aware we cared enough to measure the conversion of energy from grounds to liquor.

  17. 33
    Stuatt

    I grind the night before and set my machine to make coffee just as I’m getting up. I can’t tell the difference between this and coffee I brew on the weekends with beans I grind in the morning and water that hasn’t been sitting around.

  18. 34
    michael

    inre: Heat Kills.
    First, try cold brew. It’s really wonderful, recipes abound.
    If you’re using a heat brewer (probably a drip), turn the element OFF as soon as the gurgling stops. If you want coffee later in the day, well, microwave ovens are used more for reheating coffee than anything else. Short time on heat = long preservation of flavor. It also prevents the specter of gray coffee.

  19. 35
    Vinny

    I work at Starbucks, and everything on here is what we are told too. Except we tell people to never put it in the freezer. When the oil from the beans thaws out, it basically waters it down.

  20. 36
    jeff

    fwiw, I stole some tips from a guy named George Howell for manual drip. I use 25-8g of coffee grounds per cup of coffee. If you use paper filters, fold a crease along each seam to insure they don’t fail, and rinse them before putting the coffee in. Once the water is the correct temp, wet the grounds first. You want a nice hump to develop and you should see lots of bubbling, which if I’ve been told true is CO2. Stale coffee outgasses less. Then, pour, but not much past the hump at a time.

    All of these things have made a difference in my morning cuppa and really aren’t a major deviation from what I was doing before.

    And yeah, the salt trick is sweet for old coffee.

  21. 37
    Jonathan

    Thanks so much for the coffee tips Alton, I loves me some coffee. Will try the salt suggestion. I missed your visit in Charleston, SC. I hope to someday be able right my wrongs against you. I’ve heard of some folks using butter in their coffee. You a fan? Pros/Cons?
    I happen to not mind bitterness in coffee and find myself over-extracting fairly often; gives it an espresso-like flavor. Is there anything wrong with over-extracting? As long as my brew can punch me in the face a few times in the morning, I’m ok with some bitterness.
    Love your work sir and would love to tell you in person, but for now I’ll just say a very sincere “Thank you”.

  22. 39
    Jenn

    Working for Peet’s Coffee and Tea for a little over 4 years I will have to agree with most of what Alton Brown says. Having the water sit overnight, I’m a little unsure about considering cold brew has to sit overnight and it taste great.

    I will say never freeze your beans. Even though the cold dark freezer would be a good idea condensation can still get to the beans and be exposed to water, losing a lot of its flavor and freshness. It’s best to be in an air tight container tucked away in the dark place of the pantry, would be my suggestion.

    Also, I will say if you want fresh beans, but don’t want to roast them yourself, Peet’s has a very high standard of freshness in their stores. We keep our whole beans in an unopened bag for NO LONGER than 3 weeks. After opening, it’s only a week.

  23. 40
    Bobby

    My grandmother taught me to add salt. I always have added it to the grounds. Glad I do something right. My ratio is 1/2 cup of fresh ground beans to a full 12-cup pot. It’s where I like it.

  24. 41
    Judy

    I live in Grants Pass, Or, home of Dutch Bro’s Coffee & Rogue Roasters, both excellent sources for fresh roasted coffee beans. Rogue Roasters has a wider variety of coffees to choose from & you can watch them roast the beans right there in the store (well, they’re moving & have almost completed their new, larger location) while Dutch Bro’s has a more limited selection but has the advantage of a Private Reserve blend that they use in all of their stands, which is very mellow & which they roast in the wee hours every night. I prefer the Dutch Bro’s blend, buy it fine grind at their main coffee house downtown & store it, sealed in its plastic lined bag in the freezer. I have a storage container with a scoop which I transfer some of it to periodically & use it fresh every morning in my De Longi espresso machine. We have very nice well water so chlorine is not an issue. If you pass through any time in the future try either or both. Dutch Bro’s coffee house is on 6th & D. Rogue Roasters new place will be on 6th & K.

  25. 42
    Dylan

    “Water that sits around for a long time loses its power as a solvent.”

    I’ve never heard that before. Does anyone have more info on that effect?

    • 43
      Sandi

      Water open to atmosphere or stored in a container with headspace will always exchange with particulates in the air or with your container, eventually adding more dissolved ions into the water. The more ions in solution prior to brewing, the less effective water will be at extraction (think of H2O molecules sticking to each other and other ions and when it goes through the coffee, it is less likely that the water molecules will extract the flavor compounds because they’re occupied already). Hope that helps!

      • 44
        Dylan

        There’s no way the effects of distilling water on the counter will affect the solvency of water. It’s the a powerful polar bond and a fairly dense structure. It can absorb tons and tons of sugar (for example) before it’s unable to dissolve any more. By that logic, you shouldn’t use salt because it will clog up some of your water’s bonds.

        • 45
          Brian B.

          The ability of sugar to dissolve in water in large amounts is in no way a comparison for the example at hand.
          Try this experiment:
          Fill two identical glasses with identical amounts of water. Add a few tablespoons of salt to one of your waters as experimental. Measure fourty 5g increments of sugar. With no stirring, add sugar to each in increments until each water glass is saturated (solids drop to the bottom). Note which dissolves a greater number of increments.

          You’ll be infuriated to observe that dissolved ions affect the ability of water to dissolve other substances, charged or uncharged admist the notion that you were quick to jump to conclusions
          The solvency of water is staggering but not invincible. For example, we use sodium acetate to neutralize the bonds of water to DNA to assist in DNA extraction.

  26. 46
    Jen

    I’ve been experimenting with cold brewed coffee, which is particularly brilliant for the summer. It’s actually pretty easy to do, especially if you have a French press. I’ve been following the 2 tbsp. coffee to 6 oz. water ratio, and it works very well. If you do cold brewed coffee, you have to make sure to add your sugar (and your pinch of salt) before you refrigerate it overnight. That way it will dissolve properly. I use about 1/4 cup of sugar for 4 cups of coffee. It makes for a very smooth cup of joe!

  27. 47
    Brian

    “Also, water that sits around for a long time loses its power as a solvent.” Chemist here, and that is simply not true. Whatever it is you mean by this MIGHT be true, but as written, that is not.

      • 50
        Jason

        Yeah sorry Mr. Brown but I’m going to have to call shenanigans on the water thing. What I think the “stale water” problem might actually be is the water sitting in a plastic coffee maker reservoir for too long… a reservoir that I’ve never known anyone to actually clean and probably has a good colony of (mostly harmless) organisms living in it waiting to move in to your pre-coffee overnight.

    • 51
      jeff

      Yeah, that does seem really off. I thought temperature was the key to how soluble water can be, something to do with destabilizing the hydrogen bonds. That’s why temp is such a factor in what kind of coffee you get: too hot and you’re extracting nasty things, not hot enough and you’re missing out. I imagine that if you could be wicked precise with temp, it might make a difference based on variety.

      But I wonder if Alton is just trying to discourage folks from leaving ground coffee on the counter overnight. That’s reason enough for me to eschew the timer.

    • 52
      Greg

      That comment has to be the first time I’ve ever heard Alton make a comment that seems to have zero science behind it. What constitutes “water sitting around?” Water sitting around in the water main? Or your home pipes? Or in a bottle of water? Water does an awful lot of sitting around before it makes it into your coffee pot.

      Maybe something Alton, Jamie, and Adam can test on the next Foodbusters episode?? Coffee made with fresh and “stale” water?

  28. 53
    Smokey Behr

    When I worked at Starbucks, we would grind the night before for the next day, and store the batches in an airtight container. Now, they grind as they go for the size of batch they want. The coffee tastes a lot better now.

  29. 60
    Jennifer

    Hi Alton, I have a machine that grinds then brews. Can you tell me the best measurement for my beans? I totally agree about the thermal carafe. It’s the best thing ever, especially since you can leave the house and not wonder if you left the coffee pot on.

  30. 61
    Dan

    Your best bet for fresh coffee is to roast your own! It’s not hard! Then weigh your coffee that you are going to use…I use a 17:1 water to coffee ratio.

  31. 62
    Matthew

    If you are really looking to save money AND have the best possible coffee, consider roasting your own beans. Good quality green beans can be had for less than $6.00 per pound. You can learn roasting by using an air popcorn popper, ($20) and then graduate to a dedicated air coffee roaster ($150) and then, when you really get into it, you can get a very good quality home drum roaster for about $300. There is a bit of science and “nerdiness” to it and I find it a lot of fun.

    You are only a search engine away from finding vaults of home coffee roasting sites. If you like the teachings of AB, just learning about the roasting process will certainly be interesting.

  32. 63
    M.T.

    As a chemist, not sure I buy the water losing its solvent ability as it sits around. To what solvent ability are you referring?

    • 65
      blw

      As a biology/chemistry student, I am also stumped by the assertion that letting the water sit out loses it ability to act as a solvent.

    • 67
      Kitty

      Water that sits out loses any dissolved gases, including oxygen. Would that affect the water’s ability to extract coffee? Or would it be the other way around, that sitting out causes it to dissolve gases from the atmosphere and have less room for extracting the coffee?

  33. 68
    MC

    C’mon Alton. You are a scientist at heart and I know you weigh most things. How many grams of coffee per 6oz. Tablespoon measurements are imprecise. I weigh the beans before grinding so your recommendation would be most helpful.

  34. 72
    James

    Great tips! With coffee, freshness makes a huge difference. When buying beans, it’s always a good idea to look at the roasted-on date. Or better yet, roast your own at home –you can do it with a popcorn machine; with internet resources, it’s now accessible to everyone!

  35. 73
    Kelley

    Caffeine content by roast is actually kind of a tricky customer. The caffeine content of the bean does decrease (very slightly!) as the roast darkens, but efficiency of caffeine extraction increases as the bean breaks down during roasting. Basically, a lighter roast contains (again… slightly!) more caffeine, but some of that “extra” caffeine is not accessible during the brewing process; conversely a darker roast contains less caffeine, but more of the caffeine that it does contain can actually be extracted into your brew.

  36. 75
    Marshall Wilson

    Will you be doing a post on espresso soon? Or what rules would you apply to espresso from this post? I know there are several things that go into along a great shot. Water, grind, tamper, and pressure from your machine if it’s an semi-automatic.

  37. 78
    jennifer

    i use your salt tip all the time! hey, what about this cold drip coffee thing you talked about previously, how does that work?

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