In Pursuit of Great Coffee — A Century Ago
Turns out our coffee obsessions are nothing new.
An Age-Old Debate
Long before there were electric coffee makers or pre-ground coffee, homemakers across the U.S. were faced with the very same quandary confronting coffee enthusiasts today: how to make good—or even great—coffee from scratch.
Blue Bottle is known for our exhaustive approach to finding the most foolproof brewing methods. But as modern as our preoccupation may seem, the question of how to extract the best parts of coffee (and leave behind the rest) is as old as our preference for coffee over tea as our national drink. While perusing old cookbooks, the main arbiters of food customs pre-television and -internet, we discovered that in addition to equipment and technique, coffee's ingredients were also up for debate. Recipes from the 1800s and early 1900s call for strange things like eggshells, fish skin, and something called isinglass.
Recipes from the Archives
Lest you doubt us, here's an example from a book titled The Cook Not Mad, from 1831: "To make good coffee twenty minutes is sufficient to boil, and less will do; the yelk of an egg beat and stirred in before boiling water is turned to it, will enrich the coffee; put in codfish skin as large as to clear it; let it stand five minutes after taking from the coals.”
In Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, written by the famed Fannie Merritt Farmer, the eggshell, in addition to the egg, is used: "Scald a granite-ware coffee pot. Wash egg, break, and beat slightly. Dilute one-half egg with one-half cup cold water, add one-half the crushed shell, and mix with coffee…"
Mrs. Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln wrote her bestseller, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking, in 1884. An entire chapter is devoted to tea, coffee, and cocoa. She, like many authors of her day, includes instructions on roasting coffee. Hers is a stovetop method, and includes an egg, too. This time, the egg and its shell are added to the coffee beans immediately after they finish roasting in a small frying pan.
“The egg,” she writes, “will dry quickly. It helps to preserve the flavor, is the cheapest form in which to use egg for clearing, and does not interfere with grinding of the coffee.”
Old Tools, Gritty Coffee
“Clearing,” it turns out, was a central concern to those making coffee at home. The brew methods of the day—either a Biggin pot, in which coffee is filtered through a cloth sack (sometimes a sock), or an immersion method that falls between cowboy coffee and French press—produced coffee rich with sediment. Without the technological advancements of more refined grinders, or the availability of paper filters, the best solution to thick and gritty coffee was to use an attractant, to which the floating proteins, oils, and particles adhered. The resulting coffee was not only smoother, but more stable, as the removal of sediment stopped over-extraction.
To bring the concept of clearing to life, we can look to consommé. This classic soup of the French repertoire is made by simmering a mixture of minced meat and vegetables to which egg whites have been added. The fat and sediment bind to the egg white to create a “raft,” which clears the liquid to make a pristine and richly golden broth. In coffee, the egg whites act in the same way, and the eggshell, whose interior is coated with albumen (the proteins found in egg whites), serves as an economical alternative to using an entire egg.
Fish with Your Coffee?
But how does fish skin work? According to a 1903 magazine published by the Boston Cooking School, fish skin is gelatinous and collects debris in the same way as an egg white. The Boston Cooking School writes, “Only the cured fish skin could be kept convenient for daily use… many New England households had salt codfish skin for this purpose.”
Isinglass, originally made from the bladders of sturgeon, was a popular source of gelatin and is still used today in clarifying beer. As for the "yelk," or the yolk of an egg, this was used often to enrich coffee. Particularly when milk or cream was not available, a whisked-in egg yolk enhanced body and mouthfeel.
New Tools, Faster Coffee
Our methods and our recipes have changed significantly over time, but it’s fair to say that then, as now, the tug-of-war between economy and taste informed the everyday practices of coffee drinkers. The twentieth century brought coffee inventions that lightened the workload for Americans who once had to roast, grind, and brew their coffee. Though the convenience surely came as a relief to many, we cannot help but think fondly of those hosts and hostesses who took the time to tinker with their own gadgets and ingredients in order to achieve their ideal cup. Cookbook author Eliza Leslie's directive, "The coffee will be much stronger and better, if roasted and ground just before it put in the pot," was written more than 170 years ago, but her sense of coffee's evanescence is entirely up to date.