It's a jack of all blades

By Stacey Ballis
October 25, 2018
Photo by Stacey Ballis

We have had more than one discussion on this site about my problem with making coffee. My husband, who is in charge of coffee at our house, isn’t overly fussy about prep or equipment. He is a basic French press kind of guy, and we have found a brand of decaf that doesn’t taste like brown water. But he is adamant that coffee beans should be ground weekly. It isn’t a noise he loves to make first thing in the morning, so on Sunday afternoons he makes a racket getting the beans done for the coming week.

But for all of his simple tastes in coffee gear, he definitely has opinions about grinding. He does not like the little blade coffee grinder that is essentially a super sharp mini chopper that loads in the top, has a little lever you depress, and then flip the whole thing over to empty into the cup shaped lid. He prefers, as many aficionados do, a burr grinder that stores the beans in a hopper on top and empties into a large cup in the bottom.

So why do we own not one but two mini coffee grinders? Because it is a tool I use for pretty much everything except coffee beans.

I have been taught by more than one chef pal that spices, like coffee, should be ground essentially to order, as needed for recipes. This allows for toasting, when called for, or at the least helps maintain freshness. While I do keep some pre-ground spices on hand, I try and lean more heavily on whole spices in my spice rack and then use the coffee grinder to blitz them to my desired level of fineness. Many Greek and Middle Eastern recipes, after centuries of mortar and pestle work, call for a coarser grind that allows for intense pops of flavor throughout dishes. So, pre-ground spices would actually fundamentally change the experience for the eater. I keep one grinder just for spices, using a soft paintbrush to clean it out between uses, and the occasional grinding of coarse rock salt to really clean it and sharpen the blade a bit.

I use the other grinder for less pungent ingredients. Chopping chocolate or toasting nuts for baking is the work of mere moments. Fresh citrus sliced thin and baked low and slow to dehydrate and crisp, then cooled and ground to powder becomes a powerhouse ingredient for punching up everything from soups and stews to salad dressings to baking. Mixed with either salt or sugar, these citrus powders can become a garnish for savory and sweet dishes alike.

Pre-grated parmesan, while a convenience, is full of anti-clumping agents that affect the melting properties and taste, not to mention that it dries out quickly. Being able to break off just enough cheese from a large block and whirr it up to powder in the grinder makes your pastas sing the way they should. And any leftover toasted heel of bread can become instant breadcrumbs to coat a cutlet or top a casserole. Need fresh soft breadcrumbs for a meatball or meatloaf situation? No problem, the grinder handles the soft stuff just as well as the hard.

And my personal favorite, on a hot summer day, three or four ice cubes become crushed ice in seconds, making an afternoon quencher of homemade mint tea or lemonade something of a decadent indulgence, and on a weekend, may tempt you to day-drinking of a more spirited nature.

While I cannot in good conscience recommend that you buy a small coffee grinder for your coffee, I can whole-heartedly recommend you acquire a couple of them to use for just about anything else. With upcoming holiday sales and price reductions, keep an eye out for a good deal and buy yourself a little present or two. They will become one of the most used items in your pantry.