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The One Change You Should Make to Vastly Improve Your Morning Coffee

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Some home baristas go all out. They have coffee makers and grinders that cost hundreds of dollars, buy only the finest specialty beans, and labor over their pour-overs like they’re birthing a child. Other people just want to down a scalding hot cup of liquid caffeine in the morning. And somewhere in the middle, there are those of us who love to drink the kind of coffee offered by specialty cafes, but don’t want to spend any more money or time than is strictly necessary to make such a beverage on our own.

To find out just how to get the best cup of coffee without straying too far from my lazy and stingy habits, mental_floss went to this year’s New York Coffee Festival and asked some of the city’s finest baristas and coffee experts what is really important when it comes to making your own coffee. Is it the temperature of the water? The brew time? The equipment?

“If you could only focus on and invest in one part of the coffee-making process,” we asked, “what would it be?” Yes, all the parts of the coffee-making process are technically intertwined, and if you use terrible-tasting water or let it brew too long or burn the coffee, it’ll taste bad, no matter what else you do. But what makes the biggest difference in making your coffee go from so-so to perfect?

According to most of the coffee experts we spoke to, it’s all about that grind. “You want all the grounds to be the same size, because you want the coffee to extract at the same rate,” says Chloe Langham, a coffee educator at Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn. If you’re using a blade grinder—the basic, cheap kind of grinder with two rotating blades—it’s going to churn out some pieces of coffee that are bigger than others, and that’s no good. “The large particles will under-extract and the smaller particles will over-extract,” she describes. The former will create sour notes in your cup, and the latter, bitter notes. “Your coffee will be all muddled.”

Good grinders can be expensive, but it’s worth it, according to every barista surveyed. Really, says Rachel Northrup of Ally Coffee, “Invest in a grinder.” She came to Ally with a background in agriculture, rather than in pulling shots of espresso, and she had to be forced into buying a good grinder by her colleagues at Ally. “It was the one upgrade I made,” she tells us. “It changed my life.”

Thea Heilbron, a longtime barista who now serves as the events director at New York’s Cafe Grumpy (which you may know from Girls) recommends a Cuisinart burr grinder like this $50 one for beginners. But she adds that you should never leave your beans inside the grinder’s hopper, even if it looks like the perfect coffee storage space. Not only will the oils degrade the burr mill, but over time those oils will get rancid—and spread all over your fresh coffee. Unfortunately, this means that “rancid is what most people are used to.” No more!

If you’re really looking for that perfect cup, you should grind your coffee immediately before you brew it. “Once the coffee is ground, the aromatics start to disappear within 30 to 45 minutes,” explains Andrew Oberholzer, who roasts the coffee shop Joe’s specialty Top Shelf line. When asked if he would ever consider having a coffee shop grind his coffee, he looks a little scandalized, saying that it would be a last resort if he happened to be going away for the weekend to a place with only a drip coffee machine and no grinder. His tone of voice indicates that he does not go to those kinds of places.

However, not all coffee experts are so fastidious in their recommendations. Gregg Roberson, the head roaster at the New York City-based Gregory’s Coffee (and no, he’s not the eponymous Gregory), agrees that the grind of your coffee is paramount, but he isn’t as much of a stickler for grinding your own beans at home, right before you brew. “I don’t know if beginners know the different grinds,” he points out.

If you can’t tell the difference between the grind for a French press versus a drip coffee, maybe leave it to the professionals at first. Buy your beans at a coffee shop and have them grind them for you to get a better idea of what you should be doing at home. Once you grind your beans, Roberson says, they have a week to a week and a half—“if you’re pushing it”—before they really lose their flavor and aroma.

While it was definitely the most popular response, a few baristas didn't put the grind of the beans at the very top of their list. The coffee-to-water ratio is vital, too.

Caleb Ferguson, who serves as Joe’s director of training and quality control, places the scale first in the coffee equipment power rankings. “If you don’t know how much coffee you’re using or how much water you’re using, odds are, you’re probably not making very good coffee,” he argues.

Meanwhile, Kelsey Forde, a barista educator at Brooklyn Roasting Company, comes down on the other side of the debate. “I don’t ever use a scale. I go by taste. Scales are expensive.” Do a little experimenting, she says, and figure out what makes the taste you like.

And if the world of high-end coffee baffles you, there are a few basic coffee makers that it's hard to go wrong with. Ryanne Allen, a barista at the Brooklyn-based Nobletree Coffee, has a very simple recipe for good coffee: “Buy a Clever,” she advises. The immersion coffee dripper runs only $18, and is basically fool-proof. Just pour in hot water, wait a few minutes, and place the dripper on top of your cup. “I swear by that,” she says.

For automatic machines (like that Mr. Coffee you have sitting in the office break room), Carolyn Durkee, a trade show specialist at the Seattle-based Espresso Supply, says to make sure it’s certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), which ensures that it meets the qualifications needed to produce the ideal cup of coffee—meaning that the water and the coffee grounds are in contact for somewhere between four and eight minutes with the water temperature 197°F to 205°F, among other requirements.

Just remember: Do what tastes right to you. "All these new technologies in brewing are not necessary to every home barista," says Ally Coffee's Angie Thompson. If you really love the brew your Mr. Coffee auto-drip machine makes, drink your heart out.

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Food
Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
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At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
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In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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