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Food for Thought
Wake Up and Smell the Freshly Roasted Coffee
Another year has flown by, with resolutions made and discarded. Rather than tell you what I'm going to give up this year, I'll tell you what I will not give up: coffee! In fact, I've taken a step over the line between fan and fanatic and have begun roasting my own beans at home.
I found enough tutorials to make my head spin, but was determined to give home roasting a try after realizing that I could save money and enjoy a better cup of coffee by doing it myself. And green coffee beans have a very long shelf life (two years or more), which is an important consideration since I live in the mountains and don't like to make the drive to town in the winter. No running out of coffee for me!
A real coffee roaster is on my wish list, but for now I am making do with an air popcorn popper and am very pleased with the results. Eventually I'll splurge, but for now this is working just fine.
I buy my green "beans" (they're seeds, actually) online from Sweet Maria's. There are many other suppliers, but Sweet Maria's offers very good prices and allows small ordersperfect for a home roaster. Their website is full of information, with great charts showing the different stages of roasted beans and a comparison of various roasters. The coffee beans will run around $6 per pound, depending on the type you like. Another source is Coffee Bean Corral. They have a matrix that rates the characteristics of their beans.
P-U is OK
Once you try out a variety of beans, you'll have your favorites. I love coffee from Rwanda. I also enjoy Sumatra beans, but in my opinion they smell like a wet dog when I'm roasting them, so I've moved on to other options! Which brings me to an important point: roasting coffee at home is smoky, messy, and a little smelly. It's completely worth it when you fill your canister with beans and open the lid two days later to the heavenly fragrance of freshly roasted beans, but don't expect it to smell great during the process! As a baker, I have to fight the impulse to remove the beans from the pan or popper too soon. For me, smoke and a burning smell is NOT a good thing; in this case, it's what you should expect.
Stages of coffee roasting
Coffee beans will go through many stages. To keep it simple, they go from green to light yellow, to dark yellow, to light brown. At this point they will hit "first crack," and you will hear the beans cracking and snapping. Depending on the type of bean, it can be easy to hear (the Rwandan beans make me jump sometimes!) or so quiet you have to really listen for it. Peaberry beans in particular are very soft-spoken. After the first crack you can stop the popper if you like a light roast. You'll get a lot of flavor this way.
I'm afraid I have been brainwashed to expect a darker, slightly bitter, thin roast, so I bring mine to "second crack," which is the next stage. The sound is more like a soft crackling. Some people compare it to a bowl of Rice Krispies. Most people stop at the first sign of this. If you continue, your beans will go into a French Roast, and in a few more minutes they will be a black, cindery mess. It takes a little experimentation to get the roast right for your taste, but I haven't had a single batch that was undrinkable.
Do try a variety of roasts. There are flavors that are missed completely when coffee is taken past a medium roast . . . mellow surprises that are worth experiencing, even if you usually prefer your coffee very dark. There are all different opinions on the optimal color of perfect beans, and here's mine: if they are very dark and oily, they were over-roasted and you've lost a lot of their body and flavor. Oily beans = OVERDONE!
Here's how you roast
Are you ready to give this a try? You will need an air popcorn popper. You can find a list of popular brands on Sweet Maria's Air Popcorn Popper Method page. I use the West Bend Air Crazy and let the popper cool down completely between batches, hoping this will keep it from an untimely demise. You'll also need a metal strainer (to cool the beans), a wooden spoon to stir the beans occasionally, and a heavy oven-proof skillet.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Measure 1/3 cup of beans into the skillet (you may be able to use more beans with a different brand of poppersee the list of air poppers above) and put the pan in the oven for 20 minutes, stirring once or twice during the cooking time. Before you bring the beans out of the oven, turn the air popper on. Remove the beans from the oven and pour into the popper.
Stir with the handle of the wooden spoon occasionally, and listen for the first crack. Chaff will start blowing out of the popperexactly what you want. The little skins from the beans are flammable, and if they collect in the popper they could catch on fire, so you want them to fly free! If you leave the plastic top on the popper, the chaff can be directed toward a bowl, but still plan on bringing out the vacuum cleaner after you're finished.
If you let the beans cook longer, they will start smoking a bit (still OK) and go into second crack. You may or may not be able to hear it over the sound of the popper. The beans will give you another clue, since they generally throw off another small round of chaff at this point. I go by color more than anything. I like a nice medium-dark brown bean.
Pour the beans (carefully . . . the popper is hot!) into a metal strainer and shake vigorously to cool. The goal is to cool them as quickly as possible. I often take mine outside and shake them, or pour them from one strainer into another. This cools them quickly and lets any remaining chaff blow away.
Put them in a container in a dark place and leave them alone for at least 24 hours. I've been caught short and used beans that I'd roasted the same day, and the coffee was okay, but if the beans rest for a day or two the flavor is much better. Try to use the beans within the week. And, of course, grind them right before you make your coffee!
I make a big pot of coffee in the morning, but if I need a pick-me-up in the afternoon, I'll brew a single cup using the pour-over method. Many coffee shops offer this method, even though it's a little time-consuming for them. My son is a barista who takes his coffee very, very seriously, and he has specific guidelines for making a pour-over coffee. It involves weighing the coffee, heating the water (in a long-spouted kettle) to a specific temperature, and pouring it in concentric circles over the ground beans. You can find instructions for this online if you wish, but I'm a little more casual about it. Here's what I do:
Cookies go great with coffee
Here's a fun idea! I received a cookie cutter for Christmas that makes a cookie that settles right onto your cup or mug. If you weren't lucky enough to get one from Santa, you can improvise by cutting a piece out of your dough shape before baking. Be generous when you make the cut, in case your cookies spread a little.
These crispy, spicy little cookies are just right for tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. Don't be afraid of adding the white pepper; it just gives them a little bit of heat. If you don't have white pepper, you can substitute powdered ginger. The recipe makes a lot, but they're addictiveso that's a very good thing.
If you are a "dunker," nothing beats biscotti. I love the combination of the peanuts and currants in my Chocolate Currant and Nut Biscotti, but as always, feel free to improvise. Chopped up dark chocolate covered raisins would work well too, and you could substitute any kind of nut for the peanuts.
Sip. Dunk. Sip. Dunk. Smile.
Contact Lorinda at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Also enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.
Food for Thought copyright 2013.