A couple words about ‘Coffeemakers’ and selecting a good one

I guess I’m old enough that I still call them ‘coffee pots’…

Our busy-time at work is ending, and last night my wife handed me the Williams-Sonoma sale catalog and a $10-off card that expires today, and said, “Let’s pick something!” So we thumbed the catalog and talked about a metal ‘basket’ of some sort that would be handy for grilling vegetables.

I sat down at the computer this morning and went to Williams-Sonoma’s site to shop. Featured on the home page is a coffee maker (here’s a link) that aroused my curiosity because of its design, so I went to its page to learn more. Now I will readily admit that I’m a sucker for a clean design. But there has to be a certain economy and practicality to the end product.

Any Google search will tell you that the ‘right’ temperature for brewing coffee is 195°. These machines which sell for eye-watering prices (even “on sale”!) will likely do that consistently. But for how many years…?

The principle behind all of these is the same: Ground coffee in a paper filter, add water at the right temperature, and allow the media to slow the passage of the water through the coffee just enough for the extraction to occur properly. Everything from the cheapo $14.99 model to these astronomically-priced kitchen sculptures does it in exactly the same way. They’re all pretty much the same. Water temperature aside, by using different filter media, you can make the el-cheapo perform nearly as well as the expensive unit.

But there is another way, other than the French press method. Back in the early part of the last century, Silex invented a method using vacuum to do the extraction. There are two glass vessels, the bottom is filled with water, and the upper one with a siphon tube sits on top, sealed by a rubber ring. A glass (or fabric-covered metal) filter goes into the bottom of the upper vessel, and ground coffee (plus a pinch of salt) goes on top of that. The assembly goes on a medium flame, and in about ten minutes the water in the lower vessel creates enough vapor pressure that it is pushed up into the upper vessel. This occurs at – wait for it – 195°. After a few moments, all the water has been pushed into the upper vessel, and you shut the flame off. The time it takes for the lower vessel to cool happens to be the average of the perfect extraction time for the coffee. As the lower vessel cools, the vacuum formed pulls the coffee through the filter. You end up with coffee that has all the natural oils (which would otherwise be trapped by the paper filter in a drip machine) and the taste is wonderful and round; you get all the nutty flavors that you don’t get otherwise.

There are some drawbacks to the vacuum method: less-expensive coffee often tastes better than the expensive boutique brands. The vacuum method gives you that homey-tasting, diner-type coffee that used to be the specialty of so many small shops, and it will spoil you for anything else. The upper vessel has to be cleaned and washed, and the unit has to be handled with some care as it is all glass. But it’s worth it. The great thing is that all the pieces go through the dishwasher just fine.

So I’ve just told you how much better the coffee result is; if you look online you’ll find prices varying from around $30 to $80 for vacuum-method brewers.  Even if you only use it for the weekends, the taste is worth it.

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