How do you like your coffee? Black and straight, with just a touch of sugar, or with plenty of sugar and cream?
For most people, their answer would be one of the three, but not everyone drinks their coffee the same way. You’ve probably heard of people putting butter in their coffee, and you’re probably familiar with bulletproof coffee, but if you think that’s where the weirdness stops, brace yourself for this:
A good number of coffee drinkers add salt to their brews. That’s right, SALT. Let that sink in for a minute. If by now you’re wondering what went wrong with humanity, you should know that coffee is actually quite a versatile beverage. It pairs well with a lot of other stuff, including the aforementioned sugar and cream, and even liquor (just don’t wake up to a whiskey-laced coffee if you’re headed to work).
Salt is one of the substances that goes shockingly well with coffee. If what the salty coffee lovers say is to be believed, salt actually eliminates the bitterness in coffee without altering anything else about its flavor.
We would take that advice with a grain of salt (pun not intended) if it weren’t for science, which absolutely confirms this theory. Believe it or not, this salt and coffee trend is not new. Hungarians, Turks, Siberians, and some Scandinavians have for the longest time brewed their coffee in brackish water, and as a result, they’ve been enjoying coffee with much greater intensity and foaminess.
Rather than take everybody’s word for it, let’s explore the science behind how salt cancels out the bitterness in coffee.
Coffee + Salt Equals Non-Bitter Coffee, Says Science
Researchers at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, decided to find out exactly what makes coffee bitter. Most of us think it’s the caffeine that makes coffee bitter when in actual fact, caffeine accounts for just 15% of the bitterness in coffee. This means that the main culprits of bitter coffee are two of the most present compounds in coffee – chlorogenic acid lactones and phenylindanes.
These compounds are classified as antioxidants, and they only appear in roasted beans. That means that they’re not naturally present in raw coffee beans. Chlorogenic acid lactones are formed when coffee is roasted lightly. When you continue to roast the coffee beans, the chlorogenic acid lactones are broken down into phenylindanes.
It is, therefore, safe to say that strongly roasted brews tend to have a lot more bitterness due to the presence of both antioxidants in abundance. So, how does salt counteract this bitterness? It all boils down to the organ we task with taste, the tongue. The surface of your tongue has tens of thousands of taste buds, all of which are designed to identify the five rudimentary tastes—sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and umami. When the food comes in contact with these buds, it sets off a chemical reaction that then transmits a signal to the brain, allowing you to identify its taste.
Salt is a tad unique as far as the five basic tastes are concerned. Unlike sweet, salty, sour, and umami flavors, all of which have similar biological mechanisms, salt is the only “taste” that can amplify these other flavors, according to research. When you put something bitter on your tongue, this is what happens. Rather than setting off the normal chemical reaction that sends signals to your brain to help you identify the taste, bitter substances transmit the ?bitter’ signal to your brain by releasing a calcium ion.
When salt is added to the equation, it stops this reaction from taking place on the taste buds, therefore preventing the brain from identifying the substance as bitter.
Evidently, salt is the answer to bitter coffee, whether it’s from the diner across the street or made by that one co-worker who always brews terrible coffee in the office break room. Even so, bad brewing habits could be the reason behind your co-worker’s exceptionally bitter coffee.
Brewing Mistakes That Always Result in Bitter Coffee
Coffee making is an art. Humans have spent hundreds of years slowly figuring out the best way to make their beloved brew, and though we have coffee machines and Starbucks to help us out these days, a lot of people still have to contend with bad coffee. If you’re wondering why your brews always come out tasting like boiled tar, herein are a few reasons why that may be:
- You’re over-brewing your coffee. Letting coffee steep for too long increases its bitterness.
- You’re using water that’s too hot. Coffee has an ideal brewing temperature between 195 – 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
- You’re using too fine a grind. Fine coffee grounds aren’t the best type of grounds to use because they always add too much bitterness to the brew.
- Your coffee beans are of poor quality. Good coffee doesn’t come cheap. Think about this the next time you’re shopping for coffee beans.
- You’re using way too much coffee. This is self-explanatory.
- Your brewing equipment hasn’t been cleaned in a while. With a taste so delicate, coffee is easily affected by contaminants. Avoid this by cleaning your equipment regularly.
- For tips on making better coffee at home check out my post.
If you’re still on the fence about salting your morning cup of coffee, don’t worry, because you’re not alone. Perhaps the following health benefits might change your mind, however.
Health Benefits of Salt in Coffee
As coffee lovers, there’s nothing we like to hear more than just how healthy our beloved brew is. For starters, nothing gives you an energy boost like caffeine, and we all know how much we need this boost to start our day.
Coffee has a lot more health benefits than you think, including the fact that it contains very powerful antioxidants. Apart from these, you can expect to get nutrients like potassium and magnesium from every cup, as well as benefit from a reduced risk of dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Coffee becomes less healthy when sugar and cream is added to the equation. Popularly known as “empty calories,” sugar, creamers, flavors, and syrups are only there to make coffee more drinkable, not add to its nutritional value.
When you use salt in lieu of the other additives, you are effectively eliminating these empty calories from your cup of java. Furthermore, coffee cuts down your sodium levels. You can lose up to 1200mg of sodium – a figure that’s equal to the RDA of sodium – just by drinking four cups of coffee a day. By drinking your coffee with a pinch of salt, you replenish your sodium levels while getting the energy you need.
Salt also tackles one of the biggest problems affecting coffee drinkers: acid reflux. Light and medium roasts are the most acidic types of coffee. People who get acid reflux from coffee tend to stick to Arabica, which is much less acidic. However, acidic coffee can be made better with just a pinch of salt, and this gives us more reason to believe that there’s nothing you can’t make better with a pinch of salt.
Now that you know all about coffee’s weird relationship with salt, it is time to answer an even more difficult question: when do you add the salt?
Adding Salt to Your Coffee the Right Way
There’s still a lot of debate when it comes to the actual brewing of coffee with salt. Some believe it should be added into the grounds, and others affirm that sprinkling a pinch of salt straight into a steaming mug produces the best results. The jury’s still out on this one, so the best thing to do is to follow your heart.
Alton Brown prefers throwing in a teaspoon of kosher salt to 6 tablespoons of grounds to neutralize both its bitterness and its acidity while bringing forward its underlying sweetness. However, this is just what the cookbook author prefers. There are no rules that are set in stone when it comes to brewing coffee with salt.
If you prefer adding salt to the grounds before you brew it, that works, and so does adding a pinch of salt to an already brewed cup of coffee. This is great news for coffee lovers like me because it gives me an easy way to make a bad cup of coffee more palatable no matter where I am.
It is important to note that we’re talking about a PINCH of salt. Just a little is enough. Don’t go overboard with it; you’re balancing its flavors, not making it an ocean.
Is it Time to Ditch the Creamer?
Whether it’s stale coffee, badly-brewed coffee, low-grade coffee, your co-worker’s coffee, or any other type of bad coffee you can think of, salt provides an easy way to make coffee a lot more drinkable. Is it enough to make us leave sugar and cream? Probably, but few are willing to give up that luxury as of yet.
It doesn’t really matter how you drink your coffee though because what matters is that you get that jolt of energy you need to get through your day without losing it and telling your co-worker how bad his coffee is. However, if you want a healthier way to drink your coffee –that is minus the empty calories – without grimacing from the bitterness, a pinch of salt is enough to do the trick.