Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.

Cast iron cookware is a revelation


I wish I had bought cast iron cookware long before now.

Laura went shopping this weekend and happened upon some very nice new cast iron cookware for fairly cheap. I’ve been on the lookout for used cast iron for some time, but it seems like used cast iron is getting pretty rare as people snatch them up to sell on the internet.

Either way, there’s something wonderful about cooking with cast iron. It’s not really one thing, more like a combination of things, and probably also an extremely favourable comparison to the free cookware we’ve been blessed (and cursed) with until now.

I’ve been frying with a non-stick (I think teflon) skillet for a while now, and if you know anything about teflon coated pans, you know they’re thin and light. After all, you’re not supposed to charge a teflon coated pan with heat, as teflon degrades at high temps. Because the pans are so thin, they warp easily, especially in challenging circumstances like deglazing (which is virtually impossible anyways, as there’s nothing to deglaze from teflon). To be fair, Laura got the pan for free from her old job. So it was free. But that’s about the only point in its favour.

My other set of pans are heavy-bottomed stainless steel. So not exactly non-stick in any real way. They charge with and hold heat fairly well, but even with all precautions taken, things like eggs just stick and don’t like to come off. Again, these pans were free. We inherited them from Laura’s still-living parents when they threw out their entire kitchen. They’re decent enough pans. They’re old-ish and quite nice for what they are. But they’re still just too light and too sticky to cook certain things.

So aast iron (pre-seasoned in this case) can be a little rough, but it’s wonderfully non-stick, and makes cooking steak and other meats an absolute revelation. (Even for eggs: my first over-easy was a bit tough to flip, but it was exactly the way I like my eggs.) For instance, I’d always had trouble controlling the temperature of our other pots when pan-frying a thick steak, so I’d end up with a steak seared to death on the outside and cool on the inside. Or tough all the way through. Either way, no fun to serve or eat. It sucks to have to ruin a perfectly good steak by cutting it in half lengthwise so it will cook all the way through.

I pan-fried my first steak on cast iron today, and it was perfect. Absolutely perfect. The outside had a perfect crust, and the inside was the medium-rare I love.

We also got a cast iron dutch oven, something I’ve wanted since the ceramic glazed cast iron piece of crap from Loblaws crapped out (the ceramic started chipping off the lid into the food… not fun).

Oh, and these things are heavy. Seriously. If we ever experience a home invasion (which we won’t, at least statistically; we live in Canada) it will be my weapon of choice. This is a problem if you’re used to tossing your stir-fries, but frankly I’m not that fancy yet. I like the heft of it. The pan just stays where you put it. No fuss with the thing moving about the kitchen as if it had a mind of its own like our other pots and pans.