Coffee Without Compromises - Modernist Cuisine

Coffee Without Compromises

MCMarch 12, 2012

Copyright Scott Rao. Used with permission.Few cookbooks devote a single page to instructions on how to make great coffee. That’s a shame, for two reasons. First, a special meal, hours or days in the making, shouldn’t end with a mediocre cup of joe. Yet even today, in the era of ubiquitous Starbucks, the coffee served at some of the best restaurants in the world wouldn’t pass muster with the average street vendor in Seattle or in Portland, or just about anywhere else where people value their coffee.

Another reason it is painful to see fine coffee making neglected at restaurants is that major advances in technology, technique, and understanding have actually transformed the art in recent decades, in much the same way that Modernist ideas, techniques, and ingredients have revolutionized food. While Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, and other Modernist chefs were pushing through the limits of cooking, pioneering baristas like James Hoffmann, Scott Rao, Andy Schecter, Tim Wendleboe, and others were working out the art and science of espresso and brewed coffee.

So when we were planning Modernist Cuisine, we decided early on that it should include a whole chapter on coffee. We think it’s crucial that all chefs understand the basics of what matters most in coffee making, from the roasting of beans all the way through the artful presentation of steamed milk. Preparing excellent coffee takes skill, and doing it consistently requires dedication and practice, but also a solid understanding of the details.

The coffee chapter in Modernist Cuisine, which runs to nearly 50 pages, is a good starting point. But for even more insight and instruction on the subject, you could check out the work of some of these masters in the field who are as committed to making uncompromising coffee as we are to food. The best books I’ve found on this topic are The Professional Barista’s Handbook and Everything But Espresso, both by Scott Rao.

Copyright Scott Rao. Used with permission.Rao’s explanations of the how’s and why’s of coffee are as important for baristas and coffee enthusiasts as Harold McGee’s work has been for chefs and serious cooks. Through a balance of clear technical explanations and practical tips, they open your eyes to subtleties and phenomena you didn’t even know existed and show you how to control them where you can. For people who want to improve the quality and consistency of the coffee they make, these two books are the ones to buy.

Several online forums and blogs also provide great sources of information. The forums at and, for example, are overflowing with great ideas and research (as well as some not-so-great opinions). Andy Schecter, a frequent contributor to, was the first to publish espresso brewing ratios, for example, which have been highly influential in the barista community.

I also get a lot out of James Hoffmann’s blog at James and I met back in 2005, when I was the head development chef at The Fat Duck, and James was preparing for the World Barista Championship (which he won in 2007). If you’re in London, make sure to check out his coffee-roasting company, Square Mile Coffee Roasters.

Tim Wendelboe, who along with James and Chuck Lambert helped us in writing our coffee chapter, also has a book out now.

Whether you’re a professional barista or only make coffee for yourself at home, you’ll probably be surprised by how much more pleasure you can derive from this simple beverage with a relatively small investment of time and money.

Chris Young is a coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

6 Responses to “Coffee Without Compromises”

  1. I’ve read the coffee chapter and found it outstanding. I’ve definitely improved our automatic drip just by weighing the grounds and the water to improve consistency. Given that I’m under time pressure in the morning, of all the great info out there, what steps do you think give the biggest bang for the buck in terms of effort?

  2. I’ve found that the coffee I like best is ‘complex’. That is, not just a sharp bright cup, or a dark cup or a ‘fruity’ cup, but one with notes from all registers. So I mix roughly equal amounts of a dark (say, Timor), a light (say decaf Chiapas) and a medium such as Ethiopian, all chosen for the sweetness of their aromas. Some Sumatrans can be too dank smelling, some Central Americans too “green’ and ‘stalky’ like pea pods. Highly blueberry beans like sundried Sidamos can be great, as components of the blend, but are one-trick ponies on their own. So go for sweet smelling bean IMO. As to preparation, my #1 approach is to run only half the water through the beans, the other half added later, almost like an Americano. While you might not get 100% extraction, who cares? You can still get all the oomph you want w/o bitterness. Good luck.

  3. One important thing to understand is that coffee is seasonal, just like all other produce, so it really has a shelf life of only a couple of weeks after roast.

    It’s also very helpful to realize that coffee has many varieties, and it’s likely that these effect taste more than origin (though certainly climate/soil quality and so on have their say). Saying that your favorite apples are ones from Washington isn’t very useful, because they grow all types of apples in Washington from granny smith to pink lady, which have extremely different tastes, textures, etc. In the same way, saying that you like coffees from a certain country makes very little sense, because it is likely that said country grows many varietals at many different elevations with many different processing methods. Not to mention that if you take three roasters and give them the same coffee they’ll all produce something quite different, and then once it’s in your hands the taste can easily be swayed any which way depending on how you brew.

    As far as brewing it’s most vital to be familiar with over-extraction, where the coffee tastes bitter and thick, and under-extraction, where the coffee tastes sour and perhaps watery. Thick or watery can also be affected by dose. Over-extraction could require things like cooler water, shorter brew time, and/or a coarser grind. Under-extraction could require the opposite things.

    So, tips for beginners, or those strapped on time just needing some easy stuff to improve their barista skills:
    1. Buy fresh roasted beans that have the roast date on the package and use it within a couple weeks from that date. Buy from a high quality roaster- there are surprisingly few of them out there so it’d pay to do some research on your area.
    2. Don’t refrigerate or freeze your coffee, just leave it out of the sun in an air-tight container.
    3. Invest in a good grinder that uses either flat or conical burrs rather than blades.
    4. Get a good kitchen scale that does grams, preferably with a decimal point. Weigh the coffee as well as the water and play around with these ratios to find the taste you’d like- don’t forget that adjusting grind plays a huge role. This way you can replicate a great cup every time.

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