Bringing a jolt of caffeine and bittersweet, complex flavor to your favorite baked goods is easier than you think.

By Lucy Simon

During one of my first truly solo baking projects as a kid, I accidentally made a very crunchy mocha cake. In my defense, the cake was delicious, but I made an easily avoidable issue: the recipe called for coffee and I added grounds instead of the intended brewed cup of joe. The result had plenty of coffee flavor and added texture from the grounds, but it looked nothing like the recipe photo and lacked the delicate texture that brewed coffee would have given it. Despite the mix-up, I learned a vital lesson: Baking with coffee can be delicious, but it’s important to pay a bit of extra attention when working with it. Read on for all you need to know about baking with coffee from what flavors to pair it with and when to use every form of it.   

How to bake with brewed coffee

Whether you are using brewed coffee from a French press, your favorite electric coffee maker, or even cold brew, you can seamlessly integrate coffee into your baking by treating it as you would any other wet ingredient. When used in place of ingredients like water or milk, brewed coffee adds flavor while still amply hydrating the dough or batter you are making. Unsurprisingly, the kind of coffee you choose impacts the overall flavor of the recipe “In bread applications where water is a significant ingredient, I may use brewed coffee made from a dark roast which pairs well with a well-baked crust,” says Martin Phillip, Baking Ambassador of the renowned King Arthur Baking Company. 

For yeasted doughs, like those used to make bread, cinnamon buns, or doughnuts, brewed coffee used in lieu of water can also help with the texture, especially because yeasted doughs require high-hydration dough. When recently testing a coffee-based rye bread recipe, Melanie Wanders, King Arthur’s Research & Development Specialist, noticed that brewed coffee improved  the dough’s texture compared to the water-based control loaf. “Coffee’s slightly acidic pH most likely accounts for the bread dough being easier to work with because gluten networks strengthen in slightly acidic environments,” she says. According to Wanders, coffee contributed to a better rise, crumb structure, and even toasty and well-browned crust with delicious bitter notes.  

Brewed coffee can also be added to high-moisture baked goods like brownies and cakes where the sweetness of the desert helps carry coffee’s flavor and aromas. “Let’s say you’re making boxed brownies and need one cup of water,” says Samuel Klein, Green Coffee Buyer from Partners Coffee, “you can replace 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup of that water with brewed coffee.” For best results, Klein recommends bringing your brewed coffee down to room temperature along with your other ingredients, so that they combine seamlessly.

How to bake with instant coffee

If you want the floral and nutty flavor of coffee without any of the moisture, reach for ground and instant coffee. While instant coffee has long been regarded as sub-standard, new-wave coffee connoisseurs have redefined the category with a focus on quality. “Many of our favorite roasters are gently freezing, dehydrating, and crystallizing their offerings to preserve those subtle, sweet notes that attract us to their coffee in the first place,” writes senior drinks editor Oset Babur-Winter. 

While these high-quality nouveau producers deserve a spot on your coffee station, they are also endlessly useful for baking. For low-hydration baked goods like cookies, crackers, or frosting in particular, Wanders looks to instant coffee, espresso powder and even very finely ground beans. “Both instant coffee and espresso powder can be dissolved in small amounts of liquid, like vanilla extract or a liqueur to be added to doughs or frostings,” says Wanders. She likes to add finely ground beans to shortbread or crackers for texture and intense, bitter flavor. Phillip agrees: “In a shortbread with no moisture beyond that carried by butter, I prefer finely ground espresso or espresso powder for the punchy, concentrated hit.” 

 Your Morning Coffee Is Probably Made With Arabica Beans

Infusing with coffee

Steeping coffee beans in sugar and liquid can be a great way to add coffee flavor to a baked good without any actual coffee. For dairy-based desserts like panna cotta, flan, or ice cream, Wanders like steeping whole or crushed beans in milk or cream overnight.“Steeping whole beans in cold milk or cream (as opposed to crushing the beans and heating the mixture) is a great way to add subtle coffee flavor without changing the color of the final product,” she says. Infusing also works in a sugar solution; try steeping crushed or whole beans in simple syrup for an easy coffee-flavored glaze. 

Best flavors to pair when baking with coffee

On its own, coffee is filled with floral aromas and savory bitterness, so it can sometimes be tricky to pair it with other flavors without it being too overpowering. “Coffee brings depth to everything it touches, pairing well with chocolate, warming spices, savory rubs, crust treatments on [bread] loaves, or even treats like salty sweet pecan cookies,” says Phillip. “The flavor dials can be turned up high, bringing coffee to the fore, or, can be left at a lower level play a supporting role.” 

Coffee can even enhance the chocolatey-ness of chocolate, because there’s no such thing as too much chocolate. For example, in her beloved Double Chocolate Layer Cake, Queen of the Kitchen Ina Garten relies on brewed coffee to balance the cake’s sweetness, and, of course, to amp up the chocolate flavor. 

It could also be that the chocolate flavors don’t have to compete with the additional dairy notes from the milk. Wanders’ other favorite flavors to pair with chocolate include spices like cardamom, fennel, cumin, and caraway whose citrusy aromas enhance coffee’s florality. Citrus itself is a good match too, try pairing coffee with slightly bitter lemon or orange zest. 

Whether you are making a loaf of coffee-rye bread, fudgy mocha brownies, a coffee and citrus-scented ice cream, coffee brings its distinctive flavor to anything it’s added to. “In broad terms,” says Philip “coffee can bring a wide range of flavor to baked goods with opportunities in both sweet and savory applications, [and] the baker can choose what and where to apply the diverse flavors of this delicious bean.” I’ll leave you with just one piece of advice: read your recipe carefully to choose the right form of coffee!