Most of us have to be suffering from a pretty mind-blowing caffeine withdrawal migraine before we’ll reach for instant coffee. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy some, because while instant coffee makes a generally lousy cup of java, it can do astounding things for your cooking.
First, an instant coffee primer. Coffee hounds have been tinkering with versions of instant coffee since at least the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until just before World War II that it became widely available. Those early varieties were made by spraying brewed coffee into heated towers and drying it into granules. By 1964, a freeze-drying method had been perfected, which boasted superior aroma and body.
Better, perhaps, but most of us still don’t consider it good.
But that’s OK, because while instant coffee may not do wonders in your morning mug, it can effortlessly add tons of depth and flavor at the dinner table. That’s because coffee — even the instant variety — packs one of the most complex flavor profiles of any food, an amazing balance of acidity, bitterness, sweetness and earthy notes.
While tasty on their own — or with cream and sugar — those flavors also can heighten the impact of other ingredients in a dish (much the way salt does). So what should you do with it? Start by not making a cup of coffee and using it as a dry ingredient.
• Add a tablespoon or two of instant coffee to your favorite chili. You will get a depth of flavor you didn’t think possible.
• For the same reason, add some to a tomato- or red wine-based beef stew. Coffee plays so well with the savory meat and acidic-sweet tomatoes.
• Combine instant coffee with salt, cumin, ground pepper and whatever else gets you going. Grind it up and use as a rub on steaks or beef roasts.
• Can you say mocha cookies? Add some instant coffee to a chocolate-chocolate chip cookie recipe. Ditto for chocolate cake.
• Make the best hot cocoa. In a saucepan, combine equal parts cocoa powder and instant coffee with milk. Bring to a gentle simmer and whisk in sugar (to taste). Or be totally decadent and use chocolate chips instead of sugar.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM–Hirsch.