This Surprising Everyday Ingredient Can Make Your Meat More Tender And Flavorful

How Coffee Can Make Meat More Tender And Flavorful

Add this conventional ingredient to your spice rub and watch the magic.

A cup of joe may be a go-to beverage to get the day started or as an afternoon pick-me-up. But did you know ground coffee can also be used as a spice?

That’s right, mix freshly ground coffee with your favorite seasonings to make a spice rub to tenderize and accentuate the flavor of different cuts of meat. Whether it’s beef, ribs, brisket, pork chops or even venison or duck, you can use a coffee spice rub.

“Coffee’s rich and slightly bitter notes can complement various ingredients and add complexity to savory recipes and meat,” said pitmaster Rasheed Philips, runner-up on the Netflix series “The American Barbecue Showdown” and owner of Philips Barbeque Co.

How Coffee Grounds Tenderize Meat

Pairing wine with a steak may be a no-brainer, but pairing java with your meat dishes may seem counterintuitive.

Coffee, however, acts as a tenderizer, making it an easy way to soften tougher cuts of meat or create melt-in-your-mouth bites. Coffee contains tannins, also found in wine and tea, which are suspected as the tenderizing ingredient.

“There are a number of theories, but the one I follow is that the tannins in the coffee ― the feeling that leaves your mouth a little dry ― are what tenderizes the meat,” said Tiffany Swan, a professional chef and food scientist,

“Tannins like to bind to proteins and get in between the protein strands. When we cook a piece of meat, we are tightening up those strands,” Swan explained. “But with tannins in the way, they can’t get quite as tight [and] protein strands that aren’t tight make for a tender piece of meat that can also hold onto the juices and fats better.”

How To Make A Coffee Spice Rub

Ground coffee “is not as palatable as a rub on its own,” Philips said. He advises mixing in a few ingredients, such as salt, black pepper and fresh herbs, to make a simple coffee spice rub.

“My favorite variation is equal parts sugar, kosher salt and coffee,” Swan said.

If you want to experiment, mix sweet and savory spices. In addition to sugar, kosher, salt and java, “I add a little garlic powder, a touch of cayenne, ground cinnamon and cloves,” Swan said. “The cinnamon and cloves may seem a little odd for a savory meal, but I promise, it is really great on meats!”

Carlo Guardado, executive chef at Herb & Sea in Encinitas, California, likes to use more aromatic spices, such as juniper, to mix with coffee for venison, duck, or lamb. He’s also a fan of mixing coffee and cayenne, along with some brown sugar, garlic and onion powder.

Using a finger ground ensures you won't be chewing on any coffee.
STEVEN BRISSON PHOTOGRAPHY VIA GETTY IMAGES/Using a finger ground ensures you won’t be chewing on any coffee.

How Long To Leave On A Coffee Rub

Meat becomes more tender the longer it is seasoned with coffee grounds.

“To enhance the flavor and tenderness of beef, I recommend marinating it for an extended period, ideally overnight to a full 24 hours,” Philips said.

Swan tends to marinade for less time, “between two and 12 hours for meats; two hours will provide some flavor but won’t do much for tenderizing in that time.”

For more delicate meats, “I aim for a minimum marinating time of four hours,” Philips said.

And if you’re seasoning fish, you’ll want to use the coffee spice rub for a much shorter time — ”between 10 minutes and two hours,” Philips said.

And as a food safety precaution, it’s important to keep your meat marinating in the refrigerator, in a food-safe bag or container, Philips said.

But marinating a cut of meat for too long can have negative results.

“Much like any marinade that is high in acid, enzymes (like pineapple juice), or tannin, the protein breaks down the longer it sits in contact with the rub,” Swan said.

“Coffee grounds can tenderize a cut so much that the muscular tissue breaks and causes the meat to fall apart, especially on cuts like a ribeye or flank steak,” Philips said. “So, if your rub contains a fair amount of coffee grounds, I’d recommend opting for a thicker cut of meat to balance it out.”

Coffee Also Imparts Flavor

Java not only tenderizes the meat, but it’s also an incredible seasoning to enhance the flavor.

“I love to add coffee to many dishes to add depth, earthy flavor, and a bit of bitter complexity,” Swan said.

Coffee as a seasoning makes sense for our tastebuds, too. “In spice rubs, it adds the bitter taste that helps to round out all of our senses: we get the sweet from sugar; salty from, well, salt; umami from the meat itself; and bitter from the coffee,” Swan explained. “We are just missing sour, and that can come from our barbecue sauce.”

Guardado pointed out that after you use a dry-rub marinade on meat, “when you grill it low and slow, the beef fat or game fat is going to slowly start to caramelize on the outside and generate a chocolatey and medium flavor.”

Best Types Of Meat For A Coffee Rub

Coffee rubs aren’t just for steak, so if you prefer other cuts of beef or prefer poultry or game, consider coffee one of your new seasonings.

“Coffee grounds can be utilized in just about every cut of meat,” Philips said.

“The darker the meat,” Swan said, “the more it can stand up to the coffee.”

It also comes down to preferences and your goals in the kitchen.

Philips found the best results when utilizing coffee grounds on beef.

“It really renders the fat and adds an additional depth of flavor, all while forming a rich crust on the outside,” he said.

Swan is also a fan of using it on beef, especially ribs and tri-tip.

“I also like to incorporate coffee into my long braised meats, such as a beef chuck for tacos,” she said. “But also on my Thanksgiving turkey (the gravy is incredible!) and grilled salmon.”

Guardado loves using a coffee spice rub on game, pork and lamb because of their higher fat content. He likes to mix brown sugar with coffee to bring out the flavor of the gamey meat.

What Type Of Coffee To Use

If you love to cook with wine, you probably subscribe to the idea of only using a wine you would drink to add to your recipes. Chefs shared the same philosophy for choosing quality java and freshly ground beans.

“Don’t cook with any coffee that you wouldn’t drink,” Swan said.

All chefs recommended a dark roast blend.

“Dark roast coffee has a more bold, smoky and slightly bitter taste that pairs well with grilled or roasted meats compared to medium or light roast beans,” Philips said.

Using freshly ground beans is important for the best flavor. “Make sure it is freshly ground to prevent volatilization of all of those complex flavors and aromas and to reduce the risk of oxidation and rancidity,” Swan said.

“That’s when the oils in the coffee are going to be at their peak,” Guardado said.

The grind also makes a difference.

“I like to use a finer ground coffee so I can have a good, even distribution of the coffee grounds on the surface of the protein and also not chew on them when I am eating the meat later,” Swan said.

“A finer grind will also better absorb in the meat,” Guardado said.

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