4 Tips for Better Coffee at Home

On the weekdays, we drink Bustello coffee. It's cheap, but strong. It's fine, and it's more than halfway decent if you add a little milk or cream.

On the weekends, though, we drink good coffee. We've been working our way through two high quality bags of coffee that Boyfriend and I received as gifts from his sister, who spent a year or two working behind an espresso machine and knows what she's doing when it comes to picking java.

She got us whole beans, rather than ground coffee, which forced us to finally buy a coffee grinder. I stubbornly held out on this purchase, but it really makes a difference to have freshly ground coffee. It's also helpful to be able to grind the beans to the specification of the pot. We almost always make filter coffee, but occasionally, I'll pull out the mini French press or the Italian stove-top coffee maker, which require coarse and very finely ground coffee, respectively.

It's no big secret that I'm a finicky coffee drinker. I like medium to strong coffee, but don't care so much for the eye-popping Turkish style, which intentionally has a bit of grit (one of the most popular coffee shops in New York, Stumptown, leaves its coffee muddy, too). The most superior coffee should be left black, and anything else will taste better with a touch of half-and-half or whole milk. I'm not partial to sweetened coffee, unless it's Vietnamese style, syrupy and thick with sweetened condensed milk. And there is never, ever any reason to have a cup of coffee that's more than 12 ounces (unless you're on the road and won't be stopping to refill anytime soon). You're better off drinking two or three small cups (six ounces or so) than one giant "big gulp."

Enough preamble. Here are a few tips for upping your cupping, or drinking better coffee at home.

1. Turn off the coffee pot. After you make a pot of filter coffee, turn the pot off immediately. If you leave it on, the coffee will taste more bitter and burnt within about 10 minutes. A freshly made pot of coffee will stay hot on its own for at least 15 minutes. I'd rather have warm or room temperature coffee than hot burnt tasting coffee any day.

2. Use a measuring cup. I store my coffee filters with a quarter cup scoop nestled in the middle, which I use to measure precisely a half cup of grounds every morning (I used to have a half-cup scoop, but I dropped it on the floor and smashed it to bits). When you find the proportions of water to coffee that you like for your coffeemaker, use consistent quantities. It will greatly improve how much you enjoy your morning joe.

3. Learn to cold brew. Cold-brewed coffee is a miracle. When done right, it slides around your mouth like silk and can taste like chocolate, berries, and a number of other subtle flavors. I use a method developed at America's Test Kitchen. You'll need a French press and 24 hours of waiting time to make a batch. Be sure you realize that cold-brew coffee is usually concentrate, so pour it over a generous amount of ice, add a little water, and take recipe author Dan Souza's advice to add a pinch of Kosher salt.

4. Buy baking soda and vinegar. Clean your coffee carafe, coffeemaker, and mugs so that they look nice and don't taste like old dregs. Good strong coffee will stain  your mugs and the coffee pot over time. You can clean both with a spoonful of baking soda and warm water. Baking soda, by the way, will clean almost anything in your kitchen, especially gunky tile, but because with it on painted surfaces, as it can strip the paint. Never use baking soda in the water tank area of an electric drip coffeemaker, though. You can buy a special cleaning fluid for that, or just dilute a little distilled white vinegar with water and run the coffeemaker through one cycle. Dump all that liquid, and run it again (perhaps twice) with clean water.