Coffee is a lot like wine. Similarities include the importance of place of origin/terroir and the idea that the berries grown in the least nutrient-rich soil produce the most distinguished flavors. Another similarity between coffee and wine is general confusion regarding the meaning of many of the words used to label coffee on packaging and menus.
I drink coffee every day and am typically drawn to blends that are smooth and flavorful enough that I can enjoy a cup black. Despite my willing patronage and appreciation of a product that somehow tastes better, I realize that I lack any understanding as to what makes these high-end cups of coffee superior to something from the gas station convenience store. When ordering a pour-over at my neighborhood centers of coffee snobbery (I alternate between Thinking Cup and Barrington), I make a show of pretending to mentally debate between bean options whose labels make no sense to me. This exercise is total farce, as I have no idea what I'm doing when it comes to choosing a cup of coffee or a bag of beans that best fits my taste preferences and budget. When I turn to the packaging for guidance and help, potentially meaningless buzzwords abound, and I lack clarity on whether these labels are regulated and therefore factual (vs just marketing), and how they will affect flavor and price point. One of the most common words on labels is "Arabica", which I've dissected here. This is one of many terms commonly slapped onto coffee packaging that requires decoding to understand, so stay tuned for additional posts regarding coffee labels.
"100% Arabica" or "Arabica"
This label is ubiquitous in the world of coffee, perhaps because of how exotic it sounds. In reality, the meaning is fairly basic, indicating simply that the beans that the coffee is made of are from a certain species within the Coffea plant genus called Arabica. It also turns out that this label is largely unregulated.
To use another wine analogy, Arabica is to coffee as Vitis Vinifera is to grapes. There are varietals such as bourbon and typica within the Arabica species just like the Vitis Vinifera species has chardonnay and pinot noir. Like Vitis Vinifera vs other grape species, Arabica is widely associated with high quality vs product made with other coffee bean species. However, just like anyone who has every sampled a Charles Shaw White Zinfandel knows, a wine made with Vitis Vinifera grapes is not guaranteed high quality, just as a coffee made of 100% Arabica beans is not necessarily a quality product. However, the fact that the blend is made of 100% Arabica means that the potential for quality is high.
Arabica is the dominant species of Coffee, making up around 70% of production. Robusta, a less expensive, heartier species, makes up the remainder. As mentioned above, (almost*) all high quality coffee is Arabica, but not all Arabica coffee is high quality, so relying on the Arabica label alone will not do for the most discerning seekers of premium taste. In general, you will need to exercise caution to avoid buying a blend of both species if it is not your intention: if the label indicates Arabica but does not say "100% Arabica", the coffee likely contains some Robusta, which may contribute its characteristic flavors of burnt rubber and plastic (yuck!). Furthermore, I could not find any evidence that having "Arabica" on a label requires that the blend contain a minimum percentage of Arabica in it, so any blend labeled as such has the potential to be primarily Robusta. Look for the "100%" qualifier, but understand that even this label is also unregulated. Given coffee's status as a food that is exempt from food labeling and the fact that Arabica and Robusta are both still "coffee" at the end of the day, the labeling of coffee as "100% Arabica" or "Arabica" is up to the discretion of the producer. From what I can tell, the main incentive to be honest in this claim is a brand's desire to maintain ethical and consumer-friendly business practices and avoid any any bad publicity that would accompany a discovery by the public that the claim was false.
Confusingly, the top echelon of high-quality coffee roasters often don't bother to put the label "Arabica" on their packaging at all, as they figure that their coffee snob customers already know that a producer selling artisanal coffee would never consider using anything other than the good stuff. Another tip worth noting is that coffees that are made of 100% Arabica beans typically list "100% Arabica coffee" in their list of ingredients; whereas coffees that are 100% Robusta or a blend of both say something less specific such as "100% pure coffee" or "ground coffee" on the list of ingredients. As mentioned above, neither a list of ingredients nor any level specificity regarding species of coffee bean is not required on coffee labels by any regulatory body.
Should I Buy Coffee Labeled as "Arabica" or "100% Arabica"?
If price and caffeine are your primary concerns and you don't mind drinking something less tasty, go for Robusta, which is both far cheaper ($.93 per lb on the global commodities market vs $1.53 for Arabica) and contains almost twice as much caffeine per bean. As mentioned, the most premium of producers will typically not include the species of bean anywhere on their labels, as these coffee roasters feel that their consumers assume that the beans are Arabica due to the high quality of the product. My theory on the origin of this practice is the recent tendency of mid-tier coffee roasters (Starbucks, Dunkin') to plaster packaging with the Arabica label has resulted in the label being associated with mass market quality beans. Based on this tradition, realize that a package with the label "Arabica" may actually indicate a slightly lower quality blend. Overall, I'd go with Arabica if you care about taste, so stick with super premium producers or go with mass market blends that use the words "100% Arabica" on the label.
*The exception here is that some connoisseurs of traditional Italian-style espresso blends prefer the combination of Arabica and Robusta to achieve a mouth-coating, foamy effect in a shot of espresso known as crema. There is much debate about this blending process and whether this use of lowly Robusta is justified by flavor or just another effort to cut costs.
Standing in front of the chicken section of the grocery store is an onslaught of ambiguous yet vaguely appealing labels. Despite presumably being made of the same ingredient (chicken), products vary dramatically in price and appearance and are covered with a potpourri of pseudo-helpful labels like "all-natural", "hormone free", and my personal favorite, "air chilled". While some labels provide customers with obvious and helpfully decodable information about the product (ex: "breast" and "skin on"), describing anything as "air chilled" is particularly baffling to me. Many questions come to mind...I'm hanging out in some air right now myself, does that make me air chilled too? Is this the same as putting chicken in the fridge? Is this a label that indicates regulation or is it simply marketing? Will this make my chicken more expensive, and is the benefit worth the extra money?
Chicken in the USA
Let's start this demystification with a brief discussion of the US poultry landscape. According to the USDA, chicken is the number one species consumed in America. Production is big business as well: the US poultry industry processed 8.6 billion chickens in the year 2012 compare that to just 32.1 million cattle (North American Meat Institute). The USDA classifies meat chickens (vs layers, or chickens used primarily for egg production) into 6 categories, the most important of which is the Broiler-Fryer, or young chickens killed at around 7 weeks old and weighing in at between 2.5-4.5 lbs. Other categories include such oddities as the Capon (a surgically unsexed male chicken between 16 weeks-8 months in age) and the Rock Cornish Game Hen, weighing in at only 1-2 lbs. As mentioned, Broiler-Fryers make up the vast majority of commercial chicken production, so you can rest assured that the chicken parm you had for dinner last night was probably not "surgically unsexed".
Back to the Topic of Chicken Chilling
I suppose that this fact will be obvious once you think about it: chickens are warm when they are slaughtered, as the average body temperature for a healthy live chicken is around 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Post kill, warm chicken carcasses are a hotbed for the growth of bacterial pathogens (fun stuff like Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella) that can cause foodborne illness in consumers. These bacteria are picked up by live chickens through the ingestion of infected feces or insects and settle in the intestines, so they can easily wind up on the carcass post slaughter (and subsequently infect unlucky consumers) . The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) would very much like to avoid these bacteria spreading to the public, so producers are required to bring the temperature of their carcasses down to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit within 4-8 hours of slaughter. This process is known as chilling and is somewhat effective at inhibiting the growth of bacteria on poultry.
Air Chilling vs Immersion Chilling
Now we know that chickens are chilled in order to be safe for consumption and that all of the chicken seen in the grocery store were in fact chilled after slaughter. So what is air chilling, what are the alternatives, and which method is best for food safety and for flavor?
There are 2 major methods to accomplish the chilling of raw poultry: immersion chilling and air chilling. Air chilling is an emerging alternative to immersion chilling in the US and is defined by the FSIS in the following way: "air chilling is the method of chilling raw poultry carcasses and parts predominantly with air. An anti-microbial intervention may be applied with water at the beginning of the chilling process if its use does not result in any net pickup of water or moisture during the chilling process. The initial anti-microbial intervention may result in some temperature reduction of the product only if the majority of temperature removal is accomplished exclusively by chilled air.”. In English, this means that the chicken can be exposed to some moisture in the form of an anti-microbial solution (commonly water and chlorine) before being chilled primarily through blasts of cold air. Canadian and Western European producers have long practiced this technique, and retailers like Whole Foods have helped spread its importance in the US in the last decade due to perceived and proven benefits in the flavor and safety of the ready-to-cook product.
Immersion chilling involves chilling the poultry carcasses through immersion in a cold water solution containing one or more anti-microbial agents (again, usually chlorine). This technique is common practice in the US and has been criticized for the following reasons:
Should I Buy Chicken Labeled as Air Chilled?
To sum it up, some say that air chilled chicken is safer and more tasty, and others say it's the same. Air chilled chicken is not necessarily produced in a more ethical way or using fewer antibiotics: the label only applies to the way that the carcass is chilled. While air chilled chicken is not necessarily more expensive, my experience is that it usually costs more than its neighbors without the label. The best advice that I have (and the advice I will follow myself) is to try both kinds and make a decision based on personal taste.
Hopefully this information is helpful when it comes to picking out your poultry in the future! I'll finish things off with some additional "juicy tidbits" about related food labels that I stumbled across in my research:
I have some great news to share: healthy eating has become increasingly important to Americans in recent years.
According to a study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, a trend in preference for nutritious food, aided by more frequent use of nutritional information on food labels at the time of purchase, has resulted in healthier diets for adults born between 1946-1985 during the period of time between 2005 and 2010.
As I've already mentioned, it is excellent news that adults are making healthier eating choices and using labels to become more informed about their buying decisions. It is concerning, however, that despite an enhanced dependency on labels, the vast majority of Americans (myself included) do not have the necessary knowledge to understand food labels in their entirety.
What is organic? What is sustainable? What is biodynamic? What is air chilled? Who came up with this recommendation for my daily intake of Vitamin C? These are all questions that few people outside the world of government regulation and policy can entirely answer. As individuals attempt to direct their food choices based on deeply personal beliefs about ethics, health, nutrition and taste, these labels can only be useful if understood.
Given my personal curiosity on this topic, I'm taking it upon myself to forage for the facts behind these terms on labels and deliver them to others in the form of a blog post series. Stay tuned!
A major benefit of making roast chicken for dinner is that the fun has not ended once you've devoured all of your chicken and vegetables. That haggard carcass may not look appetizing, but the broth/stock that you make will be delicious!
Stock vs Broth
Is there even a difference? Technically, yes, though the terms are often used interchangeably. According to Alton Brown, one of my all-time favorite humans, stock is made by boiling strictly the bones and connective tissue of whatever animal you're cooking in water, whereas broth is a liquid in which meat has been cooked. What most of us typically end up with is a hybrid of the two, a liquid in which meat, bones, connective tissue and other ingredients (usually vegetables, herbs, salt and pepper) have been cooked. Because I'm not a purist, I will use the terms interchangeably.
Why is making broth worth the effort?
While store-bought broth is totally fine, nothing from the shelf compares to soup made with homemade broth when it comes to flavor quality. Most people would not consider heating up boxed broth and drinking it plain from a mug, but homemade is 100% worthy of solo consumption, especially if you're feeling under the weather. Broth is also incredibly freezer friendly and can be easily stored for later use to make your recipes even more delicious and healthy.
Slow Cooker Chicken Broth
Yield dependent on size of slow cooker; I get around 8 cups from mine, which is 6-quart
Ingredients and Supplies*:
*based on use of 6 quart slow cooker
After making roast chicken, carve and save or eat all edible meat. You can keep fat and skin on the carcass or discard them. A broth made with more fat/skin will be oilier, richer and more flavorful, whereas one without skin and/or fat will be lighter and blander. Remove any leftover items from the cavity, including lemons, apples, garlic, and herbs. If you don't have time to start the broth after dinner, the carcass can be stored in a ziplock bag in the fridge for up to 2 days or in the freezer for up to 4 months
Place the carcass in your slow cooker along with a carrot, a stock of celery, and some herbs (all optional). Because these items are for flavor and will be discarded before serving, is not important to peel or cut off the ends of these ingredients. However, do make sure that they cleaned well so as not to contribute any dirt or debris to the liquid - sandy broth is no fun.
Once your vegetables are in the pot of the slow cooker, fill almost to the top with water (leave a bit of space, around a half an inch will do). I like to use filtered water (from a brita), but that is because my tap water in Boston has a bit of a metallic taste. Up to you whether you use water from the tap or filtered. Finally, add the apple cider vinegar.
Turn your slow cooker to the "low" setting and your active work is done! I recommend simmering for around 24 hours, but as long as your cooking for at least 10 you'll be pleased with your results. An optional step before removing the broth from heat is to remove excess fat that has gathered at the top of your pot before filtering with a spoon. This choice will depend on how much flavor you want in your final product - if you are using the broth as an ingredient, blander is usually better. If you're using it as a soup base, a richer broth will mean more delicious (and caloric) soup.
Once you've decided that the pot has simmered for long enough, place a colander over a pot and line with cheese cloth. I've found that it works best to clip the cheese cloth to the colander with clothespins (chip clips also work in a pinch!) to ensure it doesn't slip while you filter the broth. Pour your broth over the colander to remove particles and extra fat.
The number of uses for your broth is really broad - here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Drink from a mug with some salt as a standalone snack
2. Freeze into an ice cube tray and use for cooking when a recipe calls for a bit of broth (meat sauce reductions, quinoa and rice, etc).
3. Use as a base for soup