This bold ingredient is a secret weapon of cooks and bakers. Does it matter which one you use?
Published June 28, 2021. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 15: Never Enough Chocolate
Just a dash of espresso powder enhances the rich dark-chocolate notes in our favorite brownies, cookies, and cakes. We also use it when we want desserts to taste like coffee. Plus, it adds depth and richness to rubs, barbecue sauces, and other savory foods. Given that there are many ways to use espresso powder as a kitchen ingredient, we wanted to know which product is best. We rounded up six products and sampled them in Chewy Brownies and Easy Coffee Buttercream before mixing them with hot water and sipping them as espresso drinks.
Espresso powder is made by spray-drying or freeze-drying brewed espresso. The dried crystals look similar to ground espresso beans, but they’re water-soluble, which means that they dissolve fully when mixed with liquid. Some are called "espresso powder" while others are labeled "instant espresso coffee," and they can be marketed for baking, for drinking, or for both uses. But as far as we're concerned, they're the same thing. We’ll refer to them all as espresso powder for simplicity.
Although our tasters loved every one of the six brownies they tasted, they especially loved one and liked another one a bit less than the others. While most tasters didn’t detect any noticeable coffee flavor in any of the brownies, they described them all as being “rich and flavorful” with “pronounced chocolate flavor.” Tasters also noticed some subtle flavor differences: One sample was noted for having “a little raisiny sweetness,” while another had an underlying caramel flavor. Because we standardized all the other variables, we know that these subtle differences were due to the espresso powders.
Differences between the products became more pronounced when tasters sampled them in coffee buttercream—a recipe that relies on espresso powder for the bulk of its flavor. All the buttercreams were acceptable, but some tasted more strongly of coffee than others. The buttercream that rated the highest was made with the same product that we used to make our winning brownie. When describing our favorite buttercream, tasters compared it to “a fantastic cup of coffee” with “strong espresso flavor.” While tasters preferred the assertive coffee buttercreams, the milder buttercreams were still delicious.
One espresso powder produced a buttercream with a slightly “smoky” and “bitter” aftertaste, which was most likely due to slight differences in how the beans used to make this powder were processed and roasted. We still liked its flavor enough to recommend it. We had a favorite, but our determination is that any of these product...
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Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.