Caffeine-Free Espresso-Cardamom Rub (adapted from Grill Every Day, 2007)

Sometime in the late 2000s the coffee-rubbed steak was a minor trend in our local restaurants, not at the steak and chop houses so much as the upscale restaurants that feel obligated to have a steak on the menu.  The most common pairing was coffee and chili, usually rubbed on an inexpensive butcher’s cut like a hanger or bavette and served pre-sliced.   The coffee sticks to the surface, giving the meat a deep brown color and a little bit of roasted smokiness beyond the usual char.

In her 2007 cookbook Grill Every Day Diane Morgan presents her own take on the coffee rub, made with espresso powder and livened up with a little bit of cardamom and suitable for just about every kind of meat.   I’d looked at this recipe dozens of times but had never planned on actually making it.   No one in our house drinks coffee, and I wasn’t particularly excited to buy a whole bag or box or whatever container one buys espresso in for the measly quarter cup used in the rub.   Enter Inka, a Polish-made coffee substitute that, for reasons unclear to me, is sold in the bulk bins at my local grocery store.  Like most coffee substitutes it’s made from roasted grains and chicory root.  It’s not going to fool a discerning palate, but you mix it up with enough cream and sugar and who’s going to be able to tell the difference, right?   My first few experiments with Inka were a success – “coffee” ice cream and “mocha” brownies.  There’s so much sugar in these things that they’ll bury a high quality bean, but the roasted grains were still enough to add the dark, bitter funk of brewed coffee.

But will it rub as well as coffee?   Absolutely.   When matched against the char of a properly cooked piece of meat you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between premium roast coffee and roasted grains.  The color and flavor are spot on, and coffee’s not really the star of the show anyway.   What makes this rub special is a the warm and fruity cardamom, just enough to make itself known without overpowering the meat.  This rub pairs well with just about any kind of meat.   Steak is the natural pairing, but I’ve had tremendous success with pork as well.

Inka is no longer available in my grocer’s bulk bins, but other coffee substitutes seem to work just as well.   These days I typically use Pero, not because it’s any better than the others but because it’s what’s available.  The Postum brand is newly revived and, in a pinch, a Japanese mugi-cha would be an acceptable substitute.  Or, if you’re a coffee drinker,  just use instant coffee or espresso powder as per the original recipe.

Grill Every Day is still readily available and may be purchased from Amazon  or elsewhere.

Caffeine-Free Espresso-Cardamom Rub (adapted from Grill Every Day, 2007)

  • Preparation: 10 min
  • Ready in: 10 min
  • For: 2 cups
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  1. Mix ingredients in a 2-3 cup airtight container with a tight-fitting lid. Shake to combine. Keeps well for 2-3 months in a cool, dark space.

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