Instant Coffee — Off the Beaten Aisle

By: J.M. Hirsch
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Most of us have to be suffering from a pretty mind-blowing caffeine-withdrawal migraine before we’ll reach for instant coffee.

Which 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.

And that is why it is such an overlooked and underappreciated ingredient.

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 can heighten the impact of other ingredients in a dish, much in the way salt does.

So what should you do with it? Start by not making a cup of coffee with it. Instead, use 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 black 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.

Bourbon Java Steak Tips
Start to finish: 30 minutes active (plus marinating)
Servings: 4
1 cup bourbon
½ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup instant coffee
¼ cup soy sauce
4 cloves garlic
1-inch chunk fresh ginger
2 pounds sirloin steak tips
3 large yellow onions, chopped

In a blender, combine the bourbon, brown sugar, coffee, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. Puree until smooth, then transfer to a large zip-close plastic bag.

Add the steak tips to the bag, close the bag, then turn to coat the meat with the marinade. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to overnight.

When ready, heat the broiler with an oven rack 6 inches from the heat.

Remove the steaks tips from the bag. Add the onions to the bag, close, then turn to coat. Transfer the onions and the marinade to a large roasting pan.

Set the onions under the broiler and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, set the steak tips over the onions, then return to the broiler.

Broil for 5 to 6 minutes, then turn the tips and broil for another 5 to 6 minutes. Let the meat rest for several minutes, then serve with onions spooned over them.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 730 calories; 200 calories from fat (27 percent of total calories); 22 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 165 mg cholesterol; 42 g carbohydrate; 50 g protein; 2 g fiber; 1,450 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at LunchBoxBlues.com.

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