7 Common Mistakes When Making Coffee
A co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee & Tea shares the secrets to making the best cup of coffee.
By Kristine Hansen, Freelance Writer
Ah, coffee...my favorite morning ritual and my favorite source of caffeine. (As co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee & Tea and a frequent contributor to Fresh Cup Magazine, I've given coffee a good deal of thought.)
Brewing a great cup of coffee seems like an easy task, but how many times does yours taste as delicious as what they make at the local coffee shop? (Never?) The good news is, unlike other culinary endeavors, making good coffee is more about technique than splurging on a bunch of gadgets. A bold and delicious cup is attainable at home if you avoid these common mistakes. (Note: This list mostly pertains to brewed coffee. Learn how to make other schmancy coffee drinks over here.)
Mistake #1. Using water that isn't hot enough
One of the most important things is to use boiling water that's between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit—nearly impossible to achieve with many commercial drip brewers. Water in this range extracts the most flavor from the beans. Switch to a French press or pour-over method (Chemex or a ceramic filter), where water just off a boil is poured over ground beans and steeped for three to four minutes. These generally cost around $30, which is cheaper than the average electric brewer. (Want to go iced? Find out how to cold-brew coffee at home.)
Mistake #2. Using beans that were ground a loooong time ago
Buying pre-ground beans is a no-no. The minute coffee beans are ground, they start to release their nuanced flavors. The longer you wait to brew, the more the flavor will have diminished. The easiest way to ensure fresh-ground beans is to buy them whole and grind them in the grocery aisle to use throughout the week. Otherwise, do it yourself at home: Invest in a low-cost blade grinder or, if you're a regular coffee-drinker and willing to splurge, spring for a burr grinder for an even finer grind. Power up the grinder while the water is heating up. (For bonus points, amp up the flavor by adding spices to your beans.)
Mistake #3. Pouring into a cold cup
Think about it. If you pour hot liquid into a container of a lower temperature, it won't stay hot for long, right? Prolong your sipping pleasure by pre-warming the cup. The best part is that the water is already on its way to boiling—just pour some of the water into the cup, leave it in there while the coffee's brewing, and empty it before filling with coffee. It's also a good idea to rinse out your French press or pour-over with hot water before adding grounds.
Mistake #4. Drinking from the wrong kind of cup
Those dainty china teacups you pull out for a tea party or the super-functional Corelle coffee cup you've had for years are going to drop in temperature quickly, leaving you with (gasp!) room-temperature joe. A thick-walled cup maintains the coffee's steaming hot temperature for longer. Try to find a diner-style white coffee mug with a thick wall. We also like sipping from sturdy, handcrafted ceramic mugs.
Mistake #5. Using stale beans
This is getting into coffee geek territory...but again, who wants to drink subpar coffee? Ideally, you want to use beans that have been roasted within the last three weeks. The easiest way to ensure this is to know the roast date. Coffee roasters who sell their beans on site will often label the bags with this info. If you grab a bag of local beans at your grocer or farmers market, check the bottom of the package—they often stamp the date there. (In the meantime, want to up the flavor of a dull cup? Try dunking a cookie.)
Mistake #6. Eyeballing the measurements
Spooning your recently roasted and carefully ground beans into the filter by eye is a habit you'll want to break now. Measuring grounds allows you to control the strength of the cup. A good rule of thumb is to use eight heaping teaspoons for a 34-ounce French press (standard size). This will result in coffee that is bold and assertive—but not as strong as espresso.
Mistake #7. Not upgrading your sugar and milk
How one takes his or her coffee is a matter of personal choice, but we always recommend trying to get the most flavor for your sip. Many coffee shops have those little brown packets of raw sugar (think Sugar in the Raw). Also known as natural turbinado sugar, this sweetener simply tastes better than white sugar. In terms of milk, we like to splurge and use whole milk or half-and-half. Nonfat milk can water coffee down. (Fun fact: Straus Family Creamery's Barista Milk, sold on the west coast, is made just for baristas—the folks who make drinks at a coffee shop. Yes, it's that important!) Really want to indulge? Make one of our best-ever coffee cakes and have an amazing morning.