The other morning, as I was drinking coffee and thinking about what ingredients I’d use to barbecue some pork ribs that afternoon, I began questioning my decision not to use coffee. Barbecue is my ultimate passion and I love coffee, so it should have been an obvious culinary marriage for me. The reason I don’t is based on my experiences when first starting to cook true barbecue. Which most likely had to do with my inexperience, rather than the combination not being compatible to my palate.
I tried coffee in my dry rub first. When I cooked the meat the coffee burned and left a charred, bitter taste. Then I decided to grind the coffee finer and incorporate it into the dry rub so it would blend better. Unfortunately it still burned, but wasn’t quite as bitter. I experimented with the amount of coffee I used in proportion to the herbs & spices, but just didn’t like the result. No matter what I tried, I didn’t like it. So stopped experimenting with coffee in my dry rub and moved on.
Next I tried coffee in my sauce. After repeated trials, I didn't accomplish a flavor profile I liked. The coffee flavor was either too bold or non-existent, or didn't mix well with the herbs & spices I used. So, I still haven’t created a sauce that I’m happy with using coffee, or would present to anyone I cared about. I’m a perfectionist and a harsh critic of myself. So naturally I moved on again and haven't experimented with coffee in my sauce in a while.
I also struggled with which brand and roast of coffee I should use. Do I use a big name coffee or a regular everyday coffee, a dark roast or a lighter roast, a regular ground coffee or an instant coffee? I played with different coffees, but never settled on any one for my dry rub and sauce.
However, there was one area of barbecue that I’d successfully used coffee in the earlier years of my barbecue journey. I don’t want you to think I was a total "mixology" failure in the beginning. It was in my pork and beef mop sauce. I just clicked when I played with the flavors. I prefer to use Starbucks Italian Roast VIA (instant), as it blends well with my other ingredients and adds a great level of flavor to the mop. However, I have a more trusted mop recipe that I use regularly, or alter slightly. So I haven’t used coffee in my mop sauce in about six months.
It is now apparent after writing this column that I need to be more diligent in incorporating the same coffee and flavors in my barbecue sauce that I use in my mop sauce to achieve a successful coffee-based sauce. Often it takes something seemingly unconnected to make the obvious, well obvious. Now I'm motivated to get back in the "laboratory".
I’ve firmly believe that to produce the best barbecue, or any dish, you need to use the best ingredients. This is also true of the coffee used in barbecue. Whether you’ve chosen a big name brand or a regular everyday brand, I strongly recommend you use a 100% Arabica coffee. Don’t be fooled and buy an Arabica blend coffee, as it is a mix of Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. Robusta coffee beans are grown at low attitudes (below 5000 feet), have less flavor, have a tendency to be bitter, and are a low quality bean. Arabica coffee beans on the other hand, are grown at the higher altitudes (5000 feet and above), grows slower than Robusta beans, and produce a higher quality, better tasting, less bitter coffee. This translates into a much better taste in your barbecue.
One of the many great things about barbecue, and cooking in general, is that you can use virtually anything in your dry rub and sauces. Coffee is just one “out of the box” ingredients that can be added to produce a new or familiar flavor profile. Items such as tea, fruit, jelly/jam, chocolate, peanut butter, yogurt, beer, wine, dried Worcestershire, and a wide plentitude of the world’s spices are all fair game as possible ingredients. The strangest thing I’ve ever heard
used in barbecue is marshmallow. It was used in a barbecue sauce. While marshmallow is a very likeable food, I can’t imagine any barbecue sauce tasting good with marshmallow in it. But you never know until you try it.
So if there is an ingredient that you didn’t like in your barbecue in the past, try it again. As your barbecue experience grows, your tastes also grow and very often change. The tolerance for the heavy use of vinegar is a typical barbecue ingredient where this is particularly true; unless you grew up in or around Eastern Carolina. A lot of people don’t like it
initially, but then grow to like it better as their knowledge and appreciation for barbecue grows.
So after much reflection and debate, I guess I’m ready to introduce my beloved brand of coffee back into my barbecue again. As the old axiom goes, “When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Or in my case, take a little break and then try, try again!
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!