Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Tag Archives: coffee

Drinking coffee helps sober you up

This myth is so embedded in our culture that it may be impossible to get rid of. How many hundreds of films, TV shows, and books show us a drunk person being fed “strong black coffee” to get them sober. But it just ain’t so.

Being “drunk” with the attendant loss of mental and physical abilities and loss of judgement is directly related to the amount of alcohol in your system. Once you have had a drink (or two, or three, or eight), the amount of alcohol in your system slowly decreases due to metabolism of the alcohol by several enzymes including aldehyde dehydrogenase and alcohol dehydrogenase. Coffee does nothing to speed these processes. Drink all the coffee you want, you’ll be just as drunk in an hour as if you had not. But … and here’s the rub … the caffeine in coffee tends to make people feel more alert and more in control even though they are just as drunk and just as impaired. So, they think they can do things that they really cannot, driving being the prime example, and they go out and cause an accident.

So, if you have a drunk person on your hands, don’t give them coffee. Give them some ibuprofin and a big glass of water (hangover prevention) and put them to bed.

Roasting coffee at home is difficult and not worth the effort

To the contrary! Since being turned on to coffee roasting a while back (after a visit to an organic coffee plantation in Nicaragua), I regret not having started sooner. If you want better, cheaper coffee for little effort, read on. If you like Charbucks – err, I mean Starbucks – coffee, don’t bother.

  • Process: A coffee roaster can cost as little as $130. It looks sort of like a blender and works by blowing hot air up through the beans to agitate and roast them. Add the green (raw) beans, turn on, and forget – it’s that simple. You can vary the type of roast (light, medium, dark) by varying the roasting time and/or temperature. This process will generate some smoke, particularly when making a dark roast, so be forewarned. There are also drum smokers that heat the beans in a rotating drum.
  • Savings: Green coffee beans, easily available over the internet, cost in the $5-7 / pound range with a few exceptions for super-premium beans like Jamaica Blue Mountain. Beans lose 15-20% of their weight in roasting, so a pound of roasted beans ends up costing $7.00-$7.50 / pound. Compare that with the $12-15 that high quality roasted beans cost. Your savings will soon pay for the roaster and you’ll be saving money.
  • Variety: My favorite source of beans, Burman Coffee Traders, currently lists green beans from Costa Rica, Hawaii, India, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, New Guinea, Tanzania … the list goes on. Decaf beans are available as well. Plus, you can experiments with your own blends.

So, if you love coffee – good coffee that is – you might want to try roasting your own.

Coffee labelled “fair trade” is the highest quality

The Fair Trade Labeling Organization was started in response to the plight of coffee growers, who often received dismally low prices for their product. If a coffee cooperative met certain labor, environmental, and social standards (among other things), their coffee could carry the Fair Trade label, and they received a higher per-pound price than they would otherwise (still a low price, but definitely an improvement). Fair trade coffee is a small part of the total coffee market, about 1/2 of 1%, but it allows socially conscious consumers to ensure that the growers of their coffee are receiving a fair shake – this is a good thing!

Unfortunately, many people have the misconception that any coffee labeled Fair Trade is automatically of the highest quality. This is not the case. It’s an open secret among high-end coffee roasters and drinkers that Fair Trade coffee is often of lower quality. After all, the requirements for earning the Fair Trade label have nothing to do with the quality of a grower’s coffee, but only with meeting the Fair Trade requirements. When the price a grower receives for coffee has little or nothing to do with quality, there is no incentive to work to maintain or improve quality – with predictable results.

I am all for the Fair Trade idea, I have traveled in Central America and am aware of how much work goes into growing and harvesting coffee, and these people should definitely be paid fairly. The fact is, however, that if you are fussy about the taste of your coffee, as I am, and seek out only the highest quality beans, the growers of those best quality beans will have received more than the Fair Trade price for their crop.

There is a new coffee certification called Direct Trade that was created in response to problems with Fair Trade. It too requires reasonable prices paid to the growers, but also provides incentives for high quality coffee. You don’t hear much about Direct Trade, but you can learn more on Wikipedia.

So, if you like the taste of the Fair Trade coffee that you buy, that’s great, but if you really want to help the growers, insist on the highest quality coffee you can find, or buy Direct Trade. Hint: it’s not at Starbucks.

To keep coffee hot longer, add milk just before drinking

You’ve poured yourself a cup of coffee and then there’s a knock on the door – the FedEx guy. You want your coffee to be as hot as possible when you come back in a few minutes. Should you add the milk now or wait until just before you drink it? Most people would say to wait, but that’s wrong – put the milk in now. Here’s why:

  1. Dark-colored objects radiate more heat than light-colored ones, so the light coffee will radiate less heat than the black.
  2. The heat loss is proportional to the temperature differential between the cup of coffee and the room air. By adding the milk now, you have slightly cooled the coffee, reducing the temperature differential and the heat loss.
  3. If you use cream or half-and-half, the fat may lessen the evaporation from the surface of the coffee and the resultant evaporative heat loss.

You should not store coffee in the freezer

Oh pish-tush! For medium to long-term storage (more than a couple of weeks) this in fact the best place to store coffee. Coffee goes stale mainly because the oils in the coffee (I am talking roasted coffee, whole beans or ground) react with oxygen in the air and go rancid, giving the coffee a stale taste. One way to prevent this is to seal the coffee away from air—this is why coffee in cans and some bags is vacuum packed. The second way is with cold, which slows down chemical reactions. Cold, freezer, duh!

The reason I have heard for not storing coffee in the freezer is that it can absorb odors from the other food. Well, I dunno about you, but I wrap things tightly before they go in the freezer. Even if my leftover garlic and limburger tart comes unsealed, the coffee will be in a jar or zip-loc bag.

There is one situation when freezer storage may not be a good idea, and that when the weather is very humid and your kitchen is not air conditioned. Because moisture condenses on cold surfaces, there’s the risk of the coffee becoming moist when you take it out of the freezer to use. This would likely affect the coffee.

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