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Espresso Powder

Published June 2021

How we tested

Just a dash of espresso powder enhances the rich dark-chocolate notes in our favorite brownies, cookies, and cakes. We also use it when we want desserts to taste like coffee. Plus, it adds depth and richness to rubs, barbecue sauces, and other savory foods. Given that there are many ways to use espresso powder as a kitchen ingredient, we wanted to know which product is best. We rounded up six products and sampled them in Chewy Brownies and Easy Coffee Buttercream before mixing them with hot water and sipping them as espresso drinks.

How It’s Made and Coffee Terminology

Espresso powder is made by spray-drying or freeze-drying brewed espresso. The dried crystals look similar to ground espresso beans, but they’re water-soluble, which means that they dissolve fully when mixed with liquid. Some are called "espresso powder" while others are labeled "instant espresso coffee," and they can be marketed for baking, for drinking, or for both uses. But as far as we're concerned, they're the same thing. We’ll refer to them all as espresso powder for simplicity. 

For Chocolate Desserts, We Found That Any Product Will Do

Although our tasters loved every one of the six brownies they tasted, they especially loved one and liked another one a bit less than the others. While most tasters didn’t detect any noticeable coffee flavor in any of the brownies, they described them all as being “rich and flavorful” with “pronounced chocolate flavor.” Tasters also noticed some subtle flavor differences: One sample was noted for having “a little raisiny sweetness,” while another had an underlying caramel flavor. Because we standardized all the other variables, we know that these subtle differences were due to the espresso powders.

Differences between the products became more pronounced when tasters sampled them in coffee buttercream—a recipe that relies on espresso powder for the bulk of its flavor. All the buttercreams were acceptable, but some tasted more strongly of coffee than others. The buttercream that rated the highest was made with the same product that we used to make our winning brownie. When describing our favorite buttercream, tasters compared it to “a fantastic cup of coffee” with “strong espresso flavor.” While tasters preferred the assertive coffee buttercreams, the milder buttercreams were still delicious. 

One espresso powder produced a buttercream with a slightly “smoky” and “bitter” aftertaste, which was most likely due to slight differences in how the beans used to make this powder were processed and roasted. We still liked its flavor enough to recommend it. We had a favorite, but our determination is that any of these products will enhance chocolate richness in recipes and some will taste stronger and more complex in baked goods where coffee is the primary flavor.

The Best Espresso Powder: Civilized Coffee Espresso Powder

As a final test, we prepared espresso using every product in our lineup. They all provided a welcome jolt of caffeine, but we prefer espresso made by traditional methods. While we recommend all the products in our lineup for baking and cooking, our favorite is Civilized Coffee Espresso Powder. The brownies we made with it had a “more pronounced chocolate” flavor that elevated them “just a notch above” the other brownies. When we used it to make buttercream, this espresso powder contributed “complex flavor” that tasted like “freshly brewed” espresso. Adding espresso powder to chocolate desserts and some savory recipes is an impressively easy and convenient way to amp up their flavor.

Methodology

  • Taste six espresso powders and instant espresso coffees, priced from about $3.00 to about $6.50 per ounce, purchased online and in Boston-area supermarkets
  • Taste in Chewy Brownies
  • Taste in Easy Coffee Buttercream
  • Taste espresso drinks made from mixing the same amount of each product with a standardized amount of hot water
  • Samples were randomized and tasted blind to eliminate bias 

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*