Saturday, July 7, 2007

Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee

Last week, the New York Times ran a great article on how to make cold-brewed iced coffee. Unfortunately, that article is now for sale at $4.95 as a "TimesSelect" article, and I still haven't convinced myself to subscribe to, so I'm afraid the link won't be much help. But I'm going to tell you how to make this stuff, so screw the Times and its for-profit archive.

The article explains that cold-brewed iced coffee is way better than the usual stuff- it's less bitter, and its flavors are more complex. I'm a big iced coffee fan, but I'd never heard of this before, so I was intrigued. One of Joe's coworkers also swears by cold brewing, so we decided to give it a try.

Iced coffee is usually made in one of two ways:

(a) you brew a pot of coffee, let it cool and pour it over ice; or

(b) you make a few shots of espresso, dilute them with cold water, and pour it over ice.

If you are fortunate, your local coffee shop will have some simple syrup on hand for sweetening-- otherwise, you'll find yourself sucking unmelted sugar crystals through your straw, which is not (everybody say it with me now!) good eats.

Cold brewing, however, is done thusly:

Get yourself a big glass jar-- a Mason jar would be perfect. Fill it with 4 cups water and 3/4 cup of medium-course ground coffee. (We got ours at La Colombe, a well-loved local roaster.) Cover it and let it sit on your kitchen counter overnight (at least 12 hours).

Strain it twice-- use a really fine strainer if you can. The Times recipe recommends "a coffee filter, a fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth." We didn't have any cheesecloth, so we tried a paper coffee filter, but it broke pretty quickly. Joe (who did the actual work on this one) used our fine-mesh strainer, but found that the coffee still had a lot of sediment. Fortunately, I have a very resourceful husband. He took the top from our super-neato coffee maker, which has a very fine mesh filter, and filtered the coffee through it into a thermos.

This makes a coffee concentrate-- you dilute it to drink it, unless you're way more hardcore than we are. The Times recipe calls for a one-to-one ratio of water to concentrate, but we found that a two-to-one ratio of coffee to water was about right.

Joe also made some simple syrup-- great for iced coffee and also for cocktails. This is really easy-- get yourself equal parts sugar and water. Put the water in a pot to boil. While it's heating up, start stirring the sugar into it in small parts until it dissolves. Bring it just to a boil. You'll know it's ready because it'll be cloudy, and then suddenly start to clear up-- that means it's done. Put it in a squeeze bottle and use it for everything.

So: the finished product. Add your water to taste. You can drink this black even if you're not normally into black coffee-- it really isn't bitter. I still prefer mine with half-and-half and simple syrup. The result was a surprisingly flavorful coffee. We both used to think it was sort of silly how people would talk about a coffee as having 'chocolate notes' or some such wine-like descriptors, but now I kind of get it. This is good stuff.

Joe's coworker also recommended making ice cubes with this stuff, so that you can ice your coffee without it getting all diluted at the end.

Another yummy option is to add sweetened condensed milk for what my corner coffee shop (which is wonderful, by the way) calls a Thai iced coffee. They charge four bucks for it there, and this is way, way cheaper in addition to being really delicious.

Milk is $3.50 a gallon and rising-- that's way too expensive AND unrealistically cheap.

A quick tidbit: This article rightly condemns the fact that milk prices are soaring. It argues that this is the case because corn meal (cow feed, in other words) is rising in price due to the diversion of corn to the newly subsidized ethanol industry.

The article is absolutely correct in its argument that ethanol production is in fact not environmentally friendly. However, I would clarify that the overproduction of corn is so high in the US that it's not a matter of shortages; in fact, the push toward ethanol production is profitable because it allows agribusiness to grow the same amount of corn without the downward push on prices that is an inevitable result of overproduction. We produce too much corn; massive agribusiness producers receive huge subsidies from the federal government (subsidies originally intended to protect small farmers from the vagaries of the market); prices have to be kept artificially high in order to protect profits. Producers have for decades dumped billions of tons of grain (mostly wheat and corn) into the ocean in order to keep prices high-- an unforgivable crime in a world in which people still starve to death. But shipping free grain to, say, the Sudan wouldn't inflate prices; creating a new fuel industry that puts the grain glut to use does.

Furthermore, the article is right that ethanol production doesn't do a damn thing about global warming. Its carbon emissions are slightly lower than those of gasoline, but such massive quantities of fossil fuels are used in the production of the corn that the net lessening of emissions is negligible. (Agriculture produces more carbon emissions than any other US industry.) The only claim to 'sustainability' ethanol has is that it is a renewable energy source, unlike oil.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's eye-opening tour through food production in the US, Pollan demolishes these claims-- and points out that the milk we drink, like other industrial food, is artificially cheap. Paying a dollar for a gallon of milk-- or even $3.50-- doesn't reflect the true cost to our health, our economy and the environment involved in the production of that milk.

So the next time you see a slick ad for BP or Shell telling you how very environmentally responsible and kind-hearted and lovable energy companies are-- don't buy it. And consider getting your milk from your local farmstand, where the cows might just eat grass, like their bodies are built to do. It'll be better for you, and the way prices are going this summer, it might just be cheaper.