The path to the perfect cup of coffee

Knowing how to choose the right beans and the proper way to prepare them can make all the difference between a steamy, dreamy cup of coffee and one that's weak, watery or bitter. Here's an overview from Consumer Reports.

-- Harvesting. The coffee bean is actually a small seed inside a fruit, the coffee cherry. The cherry can be washed off the seed (wet processing) or left whole to dry (natural or dry processing).

-- Roasting. During roasting, any remaining moisture in the beans evaporates, the sugars caramelize, the beans begin to brown and swell and their aromas and flavor are developed. Terms such as "medium roast" and "dark roast" can vary by brand.

-- Buying. Freshly ground whole beans usually make the best-tasting coffee. Buying loose whole beans, as opposed to bagged ones, lets you buy smaller quantities, so you can sample new varieties without having to buy a whole bag. But Consumer Reports warns that loose beans may not be as fresh as bagged beans, which are often vacuum-sealed.

-- Storing. Keep beans in an airtight container -- stainless steel, ceramic or opaque glass -- out of direct sunlight. Heat and light oxidize the oils in the beans, diminishing freshness. Don't store beans in the refrigerator or freezer, where they can absorb the flavors of other foods. Leaving them in a kitchen cabinet is fine.

-- Grinding. Avoid using the grinding machine at the market: Your coffee can pick up flavors of other beans that have been ground in it that day. Burr grinders are more expensive than blade grinders but are a good investment because they grind beans more evenly, allowing more even extraction of flavors from the coffee. For the best taste, brew grounds right after grinding.

-- Selecting the grind. Match the grind size to the type of coffeemaker. If the grind is too fine, too much coffee will be extracted, giving you a bitter brew. If the grind is too coarse, your coffee will be watery-tasting. Generally, use medium grind for drip coffeemakers, slightly coarser grind for French press and fine grind for an espresso machine.

-- Water filtering. Most tap water is chlorinated, which kills bacteria but also affects the taste of the coffee. Filtering tap water with a simple carbon filter may reduce chlorine taste and improve the flavor of your coffee, no matter how it's brewed.

-- Water heating. If the water's not hot enough -- 195 degrees Fahrenheit to 205 degrees Fahrenheit -- it won't extract all of the flavors from your coffee and can make a weaker brew. If the water's too hot, it will extract undesirable flavors such as bitterness.

-- Measuring. The ratio of coffee to water is important. Consumer Reports suggests starting with 15 grams -- about a heaping tablespoon -- of coffee for every 8 ounces of water, and experiment. (Measure both so that once you've found a ratio you like, you'll be able to do it again.) An inexpensive kitchen scale helps. Drink coffee right away or pour it into an insulated carafe. Coffee will develop harsh, acid flavors if you leave it on a hotplate.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Analyzing chain restaurant menus

The nutrition experts at Consumer Reports' food testing lab reviewed the nutrition information for lunch and dinner dishes at the five sit-down restaurant chains that respondents to its recent survey visited most often: Applebee's, Olive Garden, The Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and IHOP.

The nutrition information came from menus picked up at restaurant locations or from the companies' websites. The goal: Identify the meals that a health-conscious diner could feel comfortable ordering. Ideally, those are dishes with about a third of a day's nutrition intake, based on a 2,000-calorie diet -- at or below 670 calories, 22 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat and 770 mg of sodium.

Consumer Reports focused on three common sources of confusion and found the fixes that can help you eat healthier anywhere.

-- Misleading Meal Names

"Even menu items that sound healthy may still be high in calories," says Lisa Sasson, M.S., R.D., clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Take the Eggplant Parmigiana at Olive Garden. Eggplant is a veggie, so it seems better than Chicken Parmigiana, right? But each has 1,060 calories. And though you probably wouldn't be surprised to see that the Bacon Temptation Omelette at IHOP has 1,080 calories, would you think that the Garden Omelette has 840?

Salads aren't always a great choice, either. At Applebee's, the Oriental Grilled Chicken Salad has 1,290 calories vs. 780 in the Classic Burger.

Fix: Look for the light. "Most of the dishes we recommend come from the chains' lighter menus," said Ellen Klosz, who conducted the review. At press time, The Cheesecake Factory had around 40 dishes on its SkinnyLicious menu. Consumer Reports also found six Lighter Fare dishes at Applebee's, eight Wholesome Fixin's on Cracker Barrel's lunch and dinner menus, five Lighter Italian Fare meals at Olive Garden and two IHOP Simple and Fit dishes, both centered on eggs.

-- Too Little Information

Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, IHOP and Olive Garden list calorie counts on their menus. Cracker Barrel does for its Wholesome Fixin's dishes. That's helpful, but it's not enough: "Lower calorie" doesn't automatically mean healthier. "A healthy meal is also lower in fat, saturated fat and sodium," Klosz says.

Fix: Research what you'll order beforehand. Check chain restaurants' websites in advance, review the available nutrition information and pick one or two dishes to choose from.

-- Sneaky Sodium

About 90 percent of Americans get more than the recommended daily maximum of 2,300 mg, and a good chunk comes from restaurant food. And if you think "lighter" dishes are less salty, think again. Four of six Lighter Fare entrees at Applebee's have more than 2,000 mg of sodium. With 2,450 mg of sodium, the Lighter Fare Shrimp Wonton Stir-Fry alone exceeds the daily maximum.

Fix: Set a sodium strategy. Anything with cheese or a sauce is practically guaranteed to be a sodium bomb, Klosz says. Request sauces and dressings on the side, and use just a little bit, which may save you calories and fat, too.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments