Sunday, March 20, 2011

How to Make Perfect Coffee

Image courtesy of

Today's recipe on my recipe blog was for Cafe Mexicain,  a whipping cream-topped coffee recipe which came from one of my new-found treasures, Betty Crocker's Guide To Easy Entertaining. (Click here to view the recipe.) This got me thinking about coffee in general, and what an important part it played in home entertaining in the 1950s. Any cookbook from that time period will have instructions for making coffee, as well as instruction on appropriate methods of serving it. When I first got my  Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, I was surprised to find two entire pages devoted to coffee. It explains how to make coffee according to the kind of coffee maker you have, although most people nowadays only use drip coffee makers.  (I, too, normally use a drip coffee maker, but will occasionally pull out one of my shiny, stainless-steel percolators for something a little different.)  It also gives six essentials for making good coffee, which I will paraphrase below:

Six Essentials for a Cup of Good Coffee:

1) Fresh Coffee: Coffee looses freshness quickly when exposed to air. Keep it tightly covered and buy it often.

2) Use the Right Grind for the Right Maker:  If you grind your coffee at home, your grinder will tell you which setting to use depending on your maker.

3) Use a Clean Coffee Maker:  Wash your coffee maker with soap and water after each use. Use boiling water with soda to remove stains.  Follow cleaning instructions on your coffee maker.

4) Use Fresh, Cold Water:  Always start with cold water; do not use hot water from tap or kettle. Bring to a full, rolling boil before putting the coffee container itself into the coffee maker.

5) Use Enough Coffee for Desired Strength: 
    For weak coffee: 1 T. to 3/4 c. water
    For medium coffee: 2 T. to 3/4 c. water
    For strong coffee: 3-4 T. to 3/4 c. water

6) Serve Coffee as Soon as Possible:  If you must let coffee stand, be sure to remove the grounds (i.e. percolated coffee). Keep very hot until serving; cold coffee loses flavor if it is reheated.

File:Washington Coffee New York Tribune.JPG
Coffee advertisement from
New York Tribune, 1919

Upon reading this, one of the first things I noticed was the coffee proportions according to the desired strength.  Today, instructions on coffee cans usually read "use 1 tablespoon of coffee for each 6 oz (3/4 c.) of water and adjust amount according to taste."  I was shocked to read that coffee from 1950 was prepared much stronger compared to our standards today.  My! Like so many other things, it seems that even our coffee standards have lowered over the years! (However, I definitely fall into the strong coffee-lover category, and may therefore, be somewhat biased about this conclusion...)

Serving guests with "after dinner coffee," which is a very strong, black coffee served, you guessed it...after dinner, was a staple of good hospitality. Any decent hostess would never serve a meal, formal or informal, without offering the required after dinner coffee.  While people of that time period also had their own preferences for coffee strength and preparation, the "after dinner coffee" largely remained unchanged.  After dinner coffee was served in small, "after-dinner" cups, or demitasse cups, which is a French word for "half cup."  (Because of the unique cups, after dinner coffee was also sometimes known by that name-- Demitasse Coffee.)  It is coffee that is made stronger than usual; for instance, my trusty, vintage Betty Crocker cookbook actually recommends using 3-4 T. coffee to 3/4 c. water for each serving (the same proportions prescribed for their strong coffee recipe).    

One of my two beloved percolators

So, those of you who are coffee drinkers:  How does this 1950s coffee methodology compare to your own, and would your after dinner coffee make you the hostess with the most-est?


  1. One one hand all the instructions seem ridiculously complicated but then, I bet it also results in really good coffee. Me? I use coffee as a caffeine and French Vanilla creamer delivery system, so doesn't seem worth the trouble. Love the coffee lesson.

  2. I'm dyin here...out of coffee filters this morning :(

  3. Stephanie, I know how you feel. Nothing starts the day of worse than no coffee! BTW: if you have really strong paper towels, they can work in a pinch. You just have to be careful not to over-fill with the grounds.

  4. coffee confession is: I drink instant! Is that horrible? No, actually, I got hooked on Nescafe when I lived in England and now it's the only kind I make at home. What I have to have here is Nescafe Classico (label is all in Spanish). The only instant that tastes great. I don't even use my coffee maker at home anymore. Just an electric tea kettle and my Nescafe and I am good! Nothing beats it..except maybe fresh ground made in a French Press...yum.
    Take care,

  5. Angela, I don't have much experience with instant coffee. The only time I ever bought any was when we were out of electricity for a whole week last winter. (And it sure tasted good to me then!)My grandmother was like you, though. She always drank instant, even if she made drip coffee for everyone else. No matter where she traveled, she always had her little electic teak kettle with her and jar of instant coffee! Never heard of a French press...



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