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Learn how to percolate the perfect pot of java

Chris Kimball of Cook's Illustrated explains what makes a good cup of joe, and recommends the best in supermarket beans and coffeemakers.
/ Source: Weekend Today

That first cup of java in the morning is more than just a tradition — it's an addiction! But is barista level coffee easy to do at home? Fortunately, you don't have to drink 200 cups of coffee to find out! Cook's Illustrated has done all the taste testing for you. Below, the winners of the Cook's Illustrated taste and gadget tests as well as tips on how to make the best cup of coffee. Chris Kimball, founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine, visited “Weekend Today” to share the results.

Coffee beans
Good coffee starts with the best beans — after all, no matter how you make your coffee, the entire process starts with this basic ingredient. But do the beans make that much difference? It can but not necessarily the way you might expect.

Tasting supermarket whole bean coffee Twenty Cook's Illustrated staff members taste-tested eight whole bean coffees from the supermarket (in all cases, the medium roast or “house” blend) at regular brew strength, plain and with 3/4 cup milk (per 12-cup pot). The top choices actually fell into two categories — light roast and dark roast. What's the difference? In general, the longer a coffee bean roasts, the darker and more strongly flavored it becomes.

In the testing, light roasts were preferred when they were tasted black. But once milk was added, the dark roasts were preferred when their assertive flavors suddenly became “robust” and “complex.”

Recommended lighter-roast coffee:

  • Green Mountain Coffee Roasters “Our Blend”
  • Eight-O'Clock Coffee “Original”

Recommended darker-roast coffees:

  • Millstone “Colombian Supremo”
  • Starbuck's Coffee “House Blend”

Beware the “quakers”
“Quaker” is coffee-industry jargon for an underdeveloped coffee bean that fails to get sorted out before the roasting stage. Lighter in color, and less dense than a regular, mature bean, quakers can wreak havoc on the coffee's flavor profile, imparting a spoiled taste to the brew. In general, the better the coffee did in the taste testing, the fewer quakers beans were in the bag.

Pre-ground or whole beans?
Coffee flavor is located deep inside the bean and these gases are released upon grinding. So while pre-ground coffee may taste great right after it is opened as many of the gases will be trapped in the vacuum pack, but the flavor will deteriorate after just a few days. With whole bean coffee, most of the flavor remains trapped safely within the bean.

Storage tipsStorage is important too, especially since water temperature is important when determining what makes a better coffee (the hotter the better). Starting with beans that are at room temperature does create a better brew. If you go through coffee quickly, room temperature storage might be best, but after two weeks, coffee should be kept in the refrigerator to maintain freshness. Either way, beans should always be stored in an airtight container.

Coffee grinders
Burr vs. blade
There are two types of coffee bean grinders: blade and burr grinders. Blade grinders chop the beans with their furiously spinning blades, resulting in unevenly ground coffee. In a burr grinder, beans are truly ground a few at a time between two grooved disks, one stationary and the other rotating just above it. The burr grinders produced a more even grind, but tasters did not find that more evenly ground coffee translated into improved flavor.

However, you can improve the evenness of the blade grind either by grinding in short, quick bursts (with stops in between to shake the grinder to redistribute the grounds) or by shaking the grinder as it ground, much as you would a martini in a cocktail shaker.

Recommended blade grinder: Capresso Cool Grind, $29.99Recommended burr grinder: Mr. Coffee Burr Mill, $29.99

Coffee makers
Grind and brew
Grind-and-brew coffee machines are automatic-drip machines with an integrated grinder that grinds the beans immediately before brewing. With 10- to 12-minute brewing times, they generally take much longer than the four to six minutes experts consider ideal when brewing for a full pot. However, we found good results with the Cuisinart Grind and Brew 10 Cup.

Recommended Grind & Brew Coffee Maker: Cuisinart Grind and Brew 10 Cup, $149

The vacuum method
A vacuum brewer consists of two bowls, one sitting directly on top of the other. The bottom bowl — the carafe — contains water, the top bowl contains the ground coffee. When the water boils, steam forces it into the top bowl, where it mixes with the grounds. When the air in the carafe cools and contracts, it forms a vacuum that draws the liquid, now coffee, through a filter that keeps the grounds aloft. They make exceptionally hot coffee and have a brew cycle that's within the ideal four- to six-minute range. Tasters liked the coffee from the vacuum brewers, but consistently described it as strong and robust. In short, vacuum brewers make a very distinct style of coffee that will appeal to many (but not all) coffee drinkers.

Recommended Vacuum Brewer: Bodum Santos Electric Vacuum Coffee Maker, $49.95

Espresso-method single-cup brewers
The most interesting innovation in coffee brewing methods is the single-cup, pump-action brewer. Each time you want a cup of coffee, you brew just that — a single cup — in less than one minute. Like espresso machines, these units use pumps to force hot, pressurized water through packaged coffee grounds (they come in small sealed plastic cups or filters) to extract flavor in seconds. The single-cup brewers produced a distinct style of coffee — mild, with light body. The Melitta One: One Java-Pod Coffee Maker has an adjustable coffee strength.

That being said, these machines only work with the coffee cups, or pods, designed for them by their respective manufacturers, so they are limited in terms of what kinds of coffee is available to you. Note, too, that whatever machine you use, you should always transfer coffee to a thermos so that is stays warm.

Recommended Single-Cup brewer: Melitta One: One Java-Pod, $39.99

Cool gadget: Coffee toddy
Cold brewing with the Toddy Coffee Maker promises a milder cup of java with less acidity and caffeine. Steep a full pound of coffee in 9 cups of cold water for 10 to 12 hours and you end up with a carafe of coffee concentrate that can be diluted with hot water for a cup of coffee or ice for iced coffee. Sealed in its airtight carafe, the concentrate was still producing clean-tasting coffee after eight weeks.

Recommended Toddy: Toddy Coffee Maker, $33.99

Pecan Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Serves 12 to 16

1/2 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, and ground fine 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar1 tablespoon all-purpose flour1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon softened butter for greasing pan6 large eggs1 3/4 cups sour cream1/4 cup maple syrup1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract3 cups all-purpose flour1/2 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, and ground fine 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda1 teaspoon salt1 recipe glaze (see below)

Note: Very soft butter can be incorporated into the cake easily, whereas cold or even cool butter will form unblended nuggets in the batter. You can toast, cool, and grind the nuts for both the streusel and cake together.

For the streuselCombine pecans, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon in small bowl and set aside.

For the cake Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 12-cup nonstick Bundt pan with 1 tablespoon softened butter. Whisk eggs, sour cream, maple syrup, and vanilla together in medium bowl.With electric mixer, mix flour, pecans, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt on lowest setting in large bowl until combined. Add room-temperature butter and half of egg mixture and beat on lowest setting, taking care not to splatter ingredients, until mixture starts to come together, about 15 seconds. Scrape down sides of bowl, add remaining egg mixture, and beat on medium speed until batter is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes (scrape down sides of bowl again after 1 minute).Add 5 cups batter to prepared Bundt pan, using rubber spatula to smooth out surface. Sprinkle streusel evenly over batter and then cover with remaining batter, spreading it out evenly.Bake until skewer inserted into middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs attached, about 60 minutes. Cool cake in pan on wire rack for 30 minutes, then invert onto wire rack to cool completely before glazing, about 1 hour. Using fork or whisk, drizzle glaze over top and sides of cake. Slice and serve.

For the tropical orange glaze
Whisk together 1 cup confectioners' sugar, 2 tablespoons orange juice, and 1 teaspoon grated orange zest.

The finished cake can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days. If you want to plan ahead even further, wrap the cooled but unglazed cake in two layers of plastic and then one layer of foil and freeze the cake for several weeks. Defrost the wrapped cake overnight on the counter, glaze, and serve.