We couldn’t let our tribute to the mighty coffee bean go by without addressing one of its most noble (yet overlooked) functions: ground coffee makes an amazing rub for smoked and grilled meats. We turned to RUSS FAULK for a primer on coffee rubs for the aspiring outdoor cook. Faulk is the author of the cookbook Food And Fire and the Resident Grillmaster for KALAMAZOO OUTDOOR GOURMET — one of America’s premier makers of grills and the accessories that go with them. We hope you’ll be able to put these pointers to good use before long.
"ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS TO PUT COFFEE ON, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, ISGRILLED SHRIMP."— RUSS FAULK FOOD AND FIRE COOKBOOK AUTHOR, KALAMAZOO OUTDOOR GOURMET RESIDENT GRILLMASTER
THERE’S WINE FOR COOKING AND WINE FOR DRINKING — IS IT THE SAME WITH COFFEE?
RF: I never cook with wine I wouldn’t drink, but I’m not gonna cook with a $300 bottle of wine. That scale doesn’t get as crazy with coffee. I tend to use the same kind of small-batch coffee in my cooking that I use in my espresso machine.
HOW FINE A GRIND ARE YOU LOOKING FOR IN A COFFEE RUB?
RF: I like the texture to be varied a little bit. So having those bigger, more interesting bits in there along with the finer powder is one of the reasons that I like to do it by hand. As a general rule, the less I’m going to cook it, the finer I’m going to grind it. [But] you don’t want it to infuse things. You want it to stay a solid. So if I was doing a coffee-crusted smoked brisket that I was going to cook for 12-15 hours, I could be pretty coarse with it. But one of my favorite things to put coffee on, believe it or not, is grilled shrimp. I only grill it for a minute and a half, two minutes. So I’ll have a little bit finer grind. For pre-ground, I get cans of Illy. I can get it off the grocery store shelf. It’s got a good quality coffee flavor, it’s not super intense, but it works well when I’m in a hurry.
WHICH MEATS WORK BEST WITH COFFEE RUBS?
RF: I haven’t really tried anything that didn’t work with coffee. It’s easier to hit a home run with a coffee rub with beef and pork than it is on chicken or fish. [But] oftentimes can’t even tell there’s coffee in the rub. It’s like when you add a little espresso to your dark chocolate cake. You don’t taste coffee, it just tastes more chocolatey. If your goal is to make a coffee crusted something, and you want it to stand out as coffee, I would go the pork route. The flavors go well together.
HOW LONG DO YOU RECOMMEND APPLYING THE RUB BEFORE COOKING?
RF: I would say not more than an hour. I’m not trying to infuse the meat with the coffee flavor. I’m trying to enhance the crust with the coffee flavor.
WHICH SPICES WOULD YOU PAIR WITH COFFEE IN A RUB?
RF: Beginners may want to stick with ingredients that work naturally together with the earthy notes of coffee. Things like paprika and dried garlic blend well with a coffee-based rub. Once you feel like venturing into more complex flavors, try using dried lemon zest, cinnamon or cardamom. In my mind, it wouldn’t hurt to sneak some nutmeg in there if you’re cooking pork. It depends what you're going for. Do taste the rub on its own before you put it on the meat. A rub is not supposed to taste good on its own, but you can make sure that you’ve got the balance of spice or salt or sweet that you’re looking for.
DO COFFEE RUBS TEND TO WORK BEST WITH WOOD, GAS, OR CHARCOAL?
RF: Charcoal burns with an extremely dry heat compared to a gas flame. There’s a lot of water vapor in the flame from gas. It’d be an exaggeration to say it’s making your meat wet, but it is a less dry heat. And the more moisture you have in your heat, the longer you’re going to have to cook it to get to that desirable reaction. So a dry heat is definitely your friend, and charcoal works great. The other good thing with charcoal compared to wood is, whatever subtlety you want to draw out of that coffee rub, you’re not layering in wood smoke flavor as well.
WHAT KIND OF ROAST DO YOU USE WHEN CREATING A RUB?
RF: I think it’s a matter of personal taste. I tend to use a dark roast, and I typically use an espresso roast.
ANY OTHER TIPS FOR ASPIRING GRILLMASTERS?
RF: You don’t want to put sugar in your rub if you’re going to grill on high heat, because it’s going to burn. But if you’re smoking at a low temperature, you want to put a little sugar in there. I like to use a combination of Demerara sugar and light brown sugar, for the different textures. Demerara sugar is going to maintain a pleasing crunch on your taste buds when you get thatsweetness, but the brown sugar’s going to dissolveinto the food. And I always use kosher salt in rubs, never table salt. One more tip: smoked salt! Using a smoked salt in your rub gives you a nice jump-start toward grilled flavor.