I have two espresso machines (don’t ask why I have two – even I would say that you really only need one) and a regular drip coffee maker, so I have no shortage of caffeinated beverages in my kitchen. I still sometimes include instant coffee powder or instant espresso powder in my recipes, though, and am often asked why this is.
Instant coffee powder is freeze dried coffee, not simply ultra-finely ground coffee beans. The powder can be immediately rehydrated with any liquid, which means that you can have a cup of hot coffee in seconds. It also means that by using instant coffee powder in a recipe, you can get an instant shot of coffee flavor without adding extra liquid to your ingredients. This is especially useful in cakes and cookies, where ingredient ratios can be sensitive and that small amount of coffee can be “activated” by the presence of eggs, butter or anything else that is reasonably wet. One other reason I like instant coffee powder is that it is easy to use a little bit to enhance other flavors when you don’t want coffee to be the star of your recipe. For instance, a bit of it will enhance the richness of chocolate – particularly cocoa and dark chocolate – when added to a chocolaty recipe.
Instant coffee powder isn’t known for its flavor when compared to real, freshly-made coffee, but this doesn’t make it any less useful in baking. Since you’re not usually going to use vast quantities (most recipes that need a whole lot of coffee will use the real thing), this doesn’t matter too much. Use a good brand if you can, but even inexpensive brands will work out well in recipes. That said, if you are going to shop for a particular brand, I would definitely recommend Medaglia D’oro Instant Espresso as my current favorite. Imported and a bit on the pricey side, this is one instant coffee drink that I will gladly have when I don’t feel like firing up my coffee makers, and it has a bold flavor that carries through baked goods beautifully.
Update: Starbucks Via is a excellent alternative to traditional instant coffee, as it dissolves more easily in batters, doughs and liquids and packs in more flavor. It’s worth checking out if you like coffee-flavored baked goods – or have a need for instant coffee when traveling, etc.