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Modernist Cuisine's Chris Young on Trendy Machines and How to Brew a Perfect Cup

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Latte art, from Modernist Cuisine.
Latte art, from Modernist Cuisine.
Photo: The Cooking Lab, LLC.

Chris Young, one of the authors of the upcoming megabookcook Modernist Cuisine, is wild about coffee. Yesterday, we talked to him about bad restaurant coffee and how his book is going to try to change that. Today, Young hones in on the specifics of what can make or break a great cup of joe.

We hear a lot about these ridiculously expensive machines, like the Clover or the Slayer espresso machine. Which are worth it and which are hype?
I don't think they're hype. The two you mentioned — and I would put Synesso in there as well — if I could have three machines and had an unlimited budget, I'd love a Clover, I'd love a Synesso, and heck, I'd like a Slayer. The Synesso and the Slayer are in many ways such different machines. There's actually room for both on my counter, if only somebody was willing to pay for them.

So what's all the fuss about?
You have to realize the goal of these high-end pieces of equipment, and I'm going to take the Clover off for just a minute, the goal of these machines was basically doing everything possible to ensure that the equipment wasn't fighting against your efforts to make really great coffee, against the consistency.

I hear you, though. It's entirely possible to make lousy coffee with these pieces of equipment. Both restaurants and coffee shops get seduced into the idea that oh, well, the very best places have these pieces of equipment so if I buy them, then I'll have great coffee as well. Oh, I'll buy the right beans and the right grinder. So I have all the right equipment and I even have all the right ingredients, and they still produce lousy coffee. The point is all of that stuff is helpful in terms of achieving consistency and in terms of if you're doing a large volume of coffee it becomes more important to have a machine that will allow you to pull shot after shot after shot with a high degree of consistency. But if the barista doesn't do the job right of grinding the beans, dosing the beans into the filter, grooming and tamping them properly, making sure the shot is pulled in the right amount of time, if they don't do all those things, haven't been taught really what the right thing is, and how to adjust it when it can and does go wrong, then with the best equipment in the world you don't make great coffee. This is like almost anything where there's real skill and talent that goes into the craft.

How might one screw up if the machine's working against you doing so?
The classic example with espresso is if your portafilter is cold, it's impossible to pull a good shot. It's going to be sour no matter what. All too often, I'll walk into a coffee shop and they'll have a Synesso. They won't have a Slayer, there's not many of those yet. Or they'll have some high end espresso machine. And the portafilters are clean and sitting down in the drip tray, they're not locked into the machine. You might as well turn around and walk back out. It's impossible for them to make a good cup of coffee at the point because the portafilter's cold. They're going to put the grinds into a cold or even lukewarm portafilter before locking it in and pulling the shot, and the temperature of that portafilter is going to cause the temperature of the water to plummet. And low temperature water going into your grounds is going to make a very acidic brew. So one of the things you want to see is the protafilter even when not in use locked into the machine because that keeps it hot.

This is just one of these things that never got explained to somebody and so they think they're doing a good job. They're keeping everything clean, it looks nice, and yet even though the have the $8,000, $16,000 Synesso they can't produce you a good cup of coffee at that point no matter what.

And what about the Clover?
I think the Clover is great too, with a very clever use of technology in terms of adding consistency and also adding a bit of drama to the idea of brewing a cup of coffee. And I think the most important thing about the Clover is that it made the point that brewed coffee can be as good and as revered as great espresso. In the last few years we've become very focused on the technology and the culture around espresso, and until recently not many people were paying attention to the drip coffee. Drip coffee was just drip coffee. The Clover really said drip coffee should be as respected as espresso, and you know what, we can even do a better job with it.

In doing all this research, what did you find about coffee was surprising?
One thing was the view that even I probably had a year ago was that espresso goes back further than it does. Now we have a tendency to think that espresso has always been this sort of luxury item, it has a long pedigree and history and is the kind of thing you would serve in the royal courts of Europe. In fact, espresso was Italian fast food. It was an early 20th century invention, it doesn't go back further than that. And it was meant to be a fast, probably not particularly great shot of espresso. And you could just drink it standing up on your way to work. Very much a blue collar beverage. It's just a little funny that espresso is seen as a bit hoighty-toighty or poncy by a lot of people in America. It really actually started out as a working class beverage in northern Italy in the working class factory towns. It's interesting to remember that espresso had very humble beginnings and that we've elevated it, especially here in the states.

And what about in terms of making coffee?
Just when dosing the coffee, I'm sitting here saying you have to get a scale out, you have to weigh this, and a lot people say oh, it can't make that big of a difference. But we would do experiments where just being off by half a gram, how many espresso grinds you put in, would make an enormous difference in how good the coffee tastes, with everything else being as same as possible. And so it really reinforces the point that if you want constancy, especially when you're learning a knack for it, you've got to weigh. We're just not that accurate as human beings to judge things by eyeball. We certainly can't feel in our hands 17 and a half grams versus 18 grams of coffee. That's just too small of a difference for us to perceive. It makes an enormous difference in the final cup of espresso.

Got any neat tricks?
A thing that's really interesting, and anyone who makes espresso should try this, what we would basically do is as you pull that shot over those 20, 24, 28 seconds, however long sort of works for you, we would basically line up a bunch of paper cups, and every two seconds we'd swap out a new paper cup under the stream. So we're fractionating the shot. So you can taste the first two seconds of the shot, and next two seconds and so on. And it's one of these things when somebody is first trying to convince you of this, you kind of roll your eyes. But it was just fascinating.

For example, the crema at the end, it's really thick, it's really woody and bitter tasting. And so a lot of people go, well espresso is all about the crema. But then it becomes a question of do I want the creme. If I take the espresso shot and scoop the crema off, it's much sweeter, it's much lighter, it's much more floral, in a very good way. Certainly the creme can add something, certainly bitterness isn't always something to be worried about, it's sometimes what you want. But I think that for most baristas, the idea of scooping out the crema and throwing it out before serving the shot is just total heresy. And yet our research was you might want to do it sometimes.

What's the deal with salting coffee?
One of the things we learned when talking with some food sensory science researchers, the Monell Institute, a lot of people tend to think oh, just add more sugar and you'll mask the bitterness. But the reality is in fact much more complex, and actually sugar doesn't actually mask bitterness at all, but salt does. The idea with adding a tiny bit of salt to mask the bitterness of the coffee, and the trick when doing this is to get it so you don't really detect the saltiness. A salty cup of coffee is not tasty, but just enough so it diminishes the bitterness of the coffee. The easiest way to do it is to just add small amounts of saline solution, actually. That's a very dilute solution of salt, you don't have to worry about it dissolving at all, and it's harder to over do it. You can do that in your cup of coffee, you can do it with tonic water.

Somebody might point out that this was done much earlier, looking at true cowboy coffee, old recipes for coffee from late nineteenth century America, they produced truly hideous coffee. They just put the grounds in a pot and boiled the heck out of them. And you'd over extract them and they'd just be bitter. So there's all sorts of recipes, like adding eggshells to help clarify the coffee, and I imagine somewhere in there, somebody was adding salt. And of course that's what we do with Red Eye Gravy, because usually the coffee you're using in Red Eye Gravy is not terribly good and very often it's bitter. Adding it to the pork drippings in the pan, you've got the salt and you've got the fat, between those two things it really masks over the bitterness.

So what do you actually use at home since you haven't gotten that Synesso yet?
Two things. I don't do espresso at home. For espresso I usually go out. At home, I will do brewed coffee, and it's either French press, if I have a number of people, or I will do pour over. It's a great way to do coffee. French press is very robust, but pour over's easier. You have a little funnel that sits over your coffee mug. You should totally warm your coffee mug so that it's hot. You put your filter paper in, and you put a measured amount of grinds in, and you have a measured amount of water you're going to pour into it.

And actually to get a good result, there's a little bit of technique. What you actually do is you pour a little bit of the water in a spiraling out fashion so you can wet the grounds. And just as soon as they're wet, you stop. This is a process you do called blooming, and it allows the coffee grinds to swell and absorb a little bit of water so that you don't get uneven pockets. It's surprising how much of a difference it makes. After about 30 seconds you pour the rest of the water, again in a swirling fashion. It drains through and you have your cup of coffee.

· Modernist Cuisine's Chris Young on Coffee, Espresso, and Why the Book Is So Damn Long [-E-]
· All Coffee Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Modernist Cuisine Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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