Thursday, February 23, 2006


Some of my earliest food memories are of my mom screaming, “don’t play with your food!,” as I tried to dissect a baloney and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But, what fun is food if you don’t play with it. My childhood curiosity about food helped to develop my adventurous palate. I truly believe that cooking and eating are about discovery, the discovery of new flavors, of new textures, and of foods and drinks unfamiliar to us. By scrutinizing these flavors and textures we learn to love and appreciate complex dishes whose flavors excite and awake passions in our mouths.

So it was that I began as an adult to play with food. My first experiments were mostly culinary, making my own pastas, home sushi making (more on that in a later column), growing my own herbs (no not that kind of herbs), preparing custom spice blends for dry rubs, baking bread and smoking (both hot and cold) meats and fish to name a few.

The mad scientist type experiments however, began several years ago, when I decided to make and bottle my own beer. The world of home brewing opened a deeper appreciation of beer and the complex character and flavors that can be obtained with a few tweaks of its relatively simple ingredients hops, malted barley water and yeast. These early experiments were sometimes maddening for both my wife, to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to for letting me play with my food, and me. Despite many frustrated moments, sticky spills, errant yeast infections, bad bottles and stinking up the house, I created many a bottle of beer that rivaled, at least to my palate and the taste buds of some of my friends, that which is available in many micro breweries. Since my first batch I’ve continued to brew and enjoy my own beer. Although time being what it is, it’s been quite a while since my last batch.

A great man, hell it could have been a woman for all I know, once said, “man cannot live on beer alone.” I agree. We also need coffee. A few weeks ago I wrote about the history and production of coffee and in the closing paragraphs I wrote, that if you wanted to turn your cup of coffee into hobby you should try home roasting. Well, not one to let such sage advice fall on deaf ears, I decided to give home roasting a go.

Home coffee roasting sounds impressive, but it is exceedingly easy. So easy in fact, that it’s wonder more people don’t do it. The first step is to acquire green coffee beans. A quick search of the Internet revealed most home roasters (there are several home roasting pages online and the newsgroup were the most helpful) preferred for their green beans. Once at the site I was totally blown away by the variety of coffee beans. Here were more than 75 varieties from around the world. But what beans to choose? I honestly didn’t know. So I chose beans I was already familiar with (Kenya AA). This way once I roasted them I could compare my beans to commercially roasted Kenya AA that I already had. The variety choice and price of green coffee is what makes home roasting so attractive to me.

By sampling a wide selection of beans, Sweet Maria’s offers several sampler packs that include a few pounds of coffee from the a variety of regions, I’m discovering the intricate nature of coffee flavors. There seem to be as many flavor profiles in coffee as there are in great wines and beer. Call me a coffee snob if you want, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last few weeks about coffee and I’m never going back to the commercial stuff.

Green coffee beans are also much more inexpensive than already roasted ones. Take for example the Kenya AA that I first experimented with. These are premium grade beans that you’d find only in the highest of quality roasters (Polly’s, Peet’s and to some extent good old Starbuck’s). The beans I purchased cost a little over $5.00 per pound. Roasted at a Starbucks or Peet’s these same beans fetch, between $12.00 and $15.00 per pound and they may have been sitting in bins for weeks or months.

But what about time, you ask. Well, as I said roasting coffee is incredibly simple, fast and requires little to no special equipment. For my first attempt, I used what many consider the most simple method, oven roasting. For this experiment I preheated my oven to 500 degrees (I have an oven thermometer in my oven for accuracy), placed roughly a half pound of the beans in a single layer on a perforated pizza pan (perforated, so that air can circulate around the beans assuring a more even roast), and placed them on the middle rack of the oven. After about 5-7 minutes I began to hear the beans cracking and roasting smoke began to pour out of the vents. Oh yeah, if your going to do this in your oven make sure you turn on the venting fan on as high as it will go. About two minutes later I opened the oven (quickly) to check for color. I let the beans roast for three minutes after first crack and they were at a dark city to French roast at this time. I opened the oven once more to retrieve the dark beauties and was met with the most wonderful smelling cloud of smoke (a cloud that my oven vent couldn’t quite handle so for the next 6 hours or so our house was filled with the acrid aroma of fresh roasted coffee). I quickly placed the beans into a colander and went outside to toss them. Tossing the beans in a colander cools them and removes the chaff or outer coating from the bean. Once the beans were cool to the touch I put them into an airtight container and waited for the morning to arrive. Warm, fresh roasted beans are wonderful, but the coffee attains its peak 4 to 24 hours after roasting. The next morning I awoke to one of the best cups of coffee I’d ever had. If you store your freshly roasted coffee in an airtight jar out of direct sunlight it will remain fresh for about 6 days.

That first experiment was enough to encourage more experimentation, but as with many of my food experiments I decided to (or was forced to) move my hobby outside. This move also precipitate the other wonderful aspect of hobbies the gadget collecting. Not having an oven outside I needed another way of roasting my beans. Once again I scoured the internet, finding hundreds of gadgets from high end very expensive commercial and consumer grade roasters and home rigged barbeques and propane cookers for roasting, to simple air popcorn poppers that make roasting outside cheap and easy. Not having money for the expensive roasters or the time to convert my barbecue into drum roaster (maybe someday), I opted for the popcorn popper (for details on choosing a popcorn popper see Sweet Maria’s “Home Roasting Basics” page).

The hot air popcorn popper method was even more easy than the oven. I just filled the chamber of the popcorn popper with green coffee beans, positioned a bowl under the chute (to catch the chaff that is expelled by the hot air), and turned on the machine. After about 3 minutes the beans reached the first crack stage, 3 minutes later they were ready. I dumped them into a colander and tossed them to cool. Put another load of beans in the popcorn popper. I continued this process until I had roasted about a half pound of beans. The biggest benefit of this method is not worrying about smoke or, as my wife likes to say, “stinking up the house.” The drawback is the limited amount of beans that the popcorn popper can roast at one time. But you can’t beat having fresh roasted coffee available to you at any time.

If you’re going to experiment with home roasting, I suggest visiting a few of the sites I’ve mentioned and learning a bit more about this wonderful hobby. While I’ve covered the basics here, there is much more detailed information available online, including detailed instructions and warnings plus other methods of roasting including stove top roasting, which I haven’t tried. Good Luck and remember despite what our mothers said it’s okay to play with our food.