The Art of Turkish Coffee
Turkish coffee—that thick, sweet, gritty, tiny cup—has a preparation that hints at its ancient origins. One of the oldest methods of coffee preparation still in use today, its simplicity allows for accuracy without the precise instruments that we've grown accustomed to. And besides, it's a delicious way to taste how coffee might have tasted at its beginnings.
- The ultra fine grind allows for very even grinding: just grind the heck out of it until it is almost powder.
- The method of preparation allows for control of brew temperature: bringing the brew to near boil ensures that the coffee has reached proper brew temperature without need for a thermometer.
- It's simple: using only what can be carried in caravan pouches and can be made over an open flame: traditional Turkish grinders are thin cylinders with folding handles for compactness.
- The addition of spices and sweeteners helps to make up for inexact roasting technology, which was the standard until relatively recently in history.
A little background
The first "coffee shop" in Istanbul was established in the 1470s, soon after the Turks won the city. Since alcohol was banned in the Ottoman Empire, coffee became the social drink of the Islamic middle east, as well as its mood-altering substance of choice. A rich coffee house culture exists even today in Istanbul, with coffee houses still generally separated by gender, with fortune tellers to read the grounds in the bottoms of the cups for patrons. Other forms of coffee have made inroads recently, but they are known as "Western coffee" or "Nescafe" as a generic term.
Best roast for Turkish coffee
When preparing Turkish-style coffee, it's best to use a dark roast that stands up to the other strong flavors and aromas in the brew. Like espresso, you drink so much of the finely pulverized bean that its flavors are intensely magnified in the cup. In addition, I've found that using half-caff is more mellow and well-rounded, as well as being much more manageable (for me!) in terms of caffeine content. Specifically, I've used our French Roast and Decaf Dark Roast, blended 50/50.
A note on Turkish coffee from imported food stores: do not buy it! I've never found a brand that is even remotely palatable. A combination of aged pre-ground coffee and poor bean quality makes for a disappointing waste of money.
How to grind the coffee
Grinding is probably the trickiest part of the process, as you need a grinder that has very sharp burrs that are calibrated to allow for the super fine grind required. The traditional method is the best method, in my opinion.
Rather than grinding the coffee at the grocery store, or purchasing pre-ground Turkish coffee, a good hand grinder will do the job wonderfully. It only takes a few minutes to crank out the amount of coffee required for a cup, and it will be super fresh and aromatic.
- It takes a bit of experimentation to calibrate the grinder for the first go. I've found that the right grind is when there's almost no light leaking through the burrs when the grinder's held to the light—the burrs should partially scrape together to grind the beans fine enough for proper Turkish coffee. Rub the coffee grounds between your fingers: they should be like the finest of sand. The more "powdery" and less "gritty" it is, the better.
The other important ingredients in Turkish coffee are sweetener and spices. Table sugar is great, as it doesn't have a strong flavor of its own, allowing the coffee and spices to shine through (We like Wholesome Sweeteners Fair Trade, Organic sugar).
An excellent alternative is honey, especially a more robust variety such as basswood honey. This stands up well to the strength of the brew and adds an earthy, spicy-sweet and exotic tone to the final cup. Maple syrup is to be avoided however. It's delicious elsewhere, but tends to lend some strange medicinal/herbal/grassy off-flavors to the cup.
Spice-wise, the sky's the limit. I've found cardamom, cinnamon, and anise seed to be the most delicious, but I encourage people to experiment and find their own preference.
Cardamom is the signature spice of Turkish coffee. As the method of preparation spread throughout the Middle East, the spices vary with the palate of the place. Berbers in North Africa use coriander, some parts of the Middle East prefer anise, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, or some combination thereof, and Lebanese coffee has up to 30% cardamom in it, making it stand apart as a particularly strong variety of Turkish coffee.
Preparation and serving instructions
- Use a Turkish long-handled, bell-shaped coffee pot called an ibrik or cezve
- Fill the cezve with 4 oz of water per person, filling it at most to three-quarters
- Put the cezve on the heat source at low/medium heat and bring just up to a boil; then remove from heat
- Add 6-8 grams (two heaping teaspoons or one rounded tablespoon) of ground coffee per demitasse. A Turkish coffee cup is slightly larger than a traditional espresso demitasse, so be aware that you may want to experiment to taste with the amount of coffee
- Add one teaspoon of sweetener per demitasse
- Add spice(s) of choice, at least one pinch per demitasse, adjust to taste
- Stir until all of the sweetener is dissolved and the clumps of coffee are broken up.
- Allow the çezve to sit for 4 minutes to allow the coffee to infuse. Stir once a minute, or just once at the end.
IMPORTANT: Only stir the top of the infusion, breaking up the "puck" of wet grounds that forms on the surface. You do not want to stir up all the sediment from the bottom.
- Put the cezve back on the heat source, and watch it closely—it's easy to overboil and very messy to clean up.
- Stir the top of the çezve several more times to continually break up the "puck" of grounds that will form on the top. Without stirring, the brew will be trapped beneath and will make a thicker brew more akin to slightly bitter espresso, it will be difficult to serve the coffee. Extra stirring may ruin the foam, but I have found the benefits of fewer grounds suspended in the cup outweigh the benefits of outstanding foam.
- When the surface starts to roil, there should be glossy black/brown foam moving across the surface. When it bubbles up near the rim of the cezve, lift it a few inches off the heat and turn the heat down to low. Replace on the heat until it froths up to almost the rim again, and lift again. Replace a third time, and this time, remove completely from heat when the foam reaches the rim. Some people insist that this threefold action damages the coffee, but I have found it to be beneficial to the final cup, which I think has the effect of maintaining proper brew temp for longer in the cezve.
- Traditionally, it is a very important matter of hospitality to ensure that each person served receives an equal amount of foam. This can be achieved by either distributing the foam with a spoon to the cups before pouring, or with skillful pouring. It should not greatly affect the taste, but will affect the appearance of each cup.
- Once the coffee is poured into the cups, let it sit for between 90 and 120 seconds to cool a bit and to let the grounds settle.
- Traditionally Turkish coffee is served with a small glass of water to allow the drinker to cleanse his or her palate, and a small piece of Turkish delight or baklava on the saucer.
Tips for cleanup
- Only clean the cezve with a damp cloth and water, never with an abrasive material, as it will score and damage the copper exterior and tin lining
- Use wooden or plastic spoons for stirring to avoid damaging the tin lining and be on the lookout for places on the inside where the tin is worn off, which means it needs to be retinned
- Copper/tin cezves work best because copper is a very good conductor of heat, but brass, steel, and other materials are used sometimes as well
- You may notice that the copper or tin parts of the cezve may tarnish. This is perfectly acceptable, and the cezve should acquire more character with age, just like people!
Traditionally, when a man and woman are engaged, the families gather for coffee made by the woman, who will add detergent, salt, or some other contaminant to her future husband's coffee. If he drinks it without complaint and is gracious, it is a sign he will be a good and patient husband.