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I know what you’re thinking. When I first contemplated trying this, the thought was enough to make me spit out my steaming hot cuppa all over the kitchen floor.
Salt, in coffee? I was incredulous.
But, according to Little Coffee Place (LCP), a popular online blog-spot and so-called “haven” for coffee enthusiasts, adding a pinch of salt to your cup of coffee actually makes sense.
It’s a trick we’ve long been missing that cancels out the bitterness of coffee without dulling its robustness.
Think about it. Salt is one of the five basic tastes that we are hard-wired to detect. The reason we add it to food as a seasoning is that it responds to other flavors by enhancing or balancing them out. It also tones down the sharpness of bitter foods.
Why might the same not be achieved by adding salt to coffee then?
Somewhat appeased by this reasoning, I decided to take LCP’s strange but, admittedly, tenable recommendation. Following a tried-and-tested brewing method, I added some salt instead of a dash of milk to my morning coffee.
It was a game-changer.
First thing’s first. I wanted to know exactly how well-founded LPC’s advice was.
The salt suggestion seems to stem from a 2007 study conducted at The Technical University of Munich, in Germany, which drew attention to the fact that just 15% of coffee’s biterness comes from caffeine itself.
Arabica and robusta beans don’t release antioxidants until roasted – the compounds which are to blame for any potential acridity. The majority of the bitterness we sometimes taste in coffee is therefore determined by how harshly the beans have been roasted, the reason why it’s so important to brew coffee correctly.
In reality, most of us aren’t trained baristas. Nor do we have the time or own the right equipment needed to produce a perfectly smooth roast every morning. As a result, we add generous amounts of cream, sugar or milk to compensate for the bitter flavor of black coffee, which can arise from easily-made brewing mistakes such as steeping our coffee grounds for too long or using searingly hot water.
Cue Alton Brown, who took to our screens on Food Network in 2009, two years after the study was published. His coffee preparation method centred on maintaining quality, and included a surprising way to “take the bitterness out of your brew”: add kosher salt.
Adding salt: The method
As you can see, the salt idea has existed in mainstream media for over a decade. Why then, in 2020, are we still treating it like a new discovery? Clearly, enhancing the flavor of our coffee with kosher salt hasn’t taken off yet.
It might be because concern about the amount of sodium being consumed by Americans has, quite rightly, encouraged us to cut down our daily salt intake rather than add any more to it. However, most of that sodium comes from commercially processed foods as opposed to salt seasoning.
So, as with anything, when trying out this method, “use your common sense”. If you’re generally mindful of sodium intake (or a curious coffee nut like me!), then adding “kosher” to your “café” isn’t necessarily an unhealthy way to score the perfect brew.
At least, that’s what I hoped for as I prepared to try it. LCP says there’s no rule to follow here: you can add a small pinch of salt to your coffee granules before brewing them, or afterwards to a freshly poured cup. Just make sure to hold off adding it unless you really deem that your coffee is of poor quality. A truly good black coffee won’t need any!
As for me? I decided to follow Alton Brown’s three-cup recipe from the original Food Network broadcast: six tablespoons of freshly ground coffee granules plus a quarter teaspoon of kosher salt, which I pressed using a cafetiere.
I sat, I waited, I poured my brew. And…
I kid you not, it works. Like any hack, I half-expected to be disappointed. This one completely took me by surprise.
As someone who regularly adds milk to a cup of joe in the morning, for me to be able to sip away at black coffee without being troubled by its sharpness is an impressive feat. Even better, it brought out the authentic taste of the coffee more, almost completely covering any trace of saltiness.
I say almost, because as my drink lost steam, a hint of salty flavor did begin to surface. Next time, I’ll try adding a little less kosher salt to the brewing ratio – because regardless of the imperfection, I will be experimenting with this trick again!
Gone are the days of leaving my coffee to go cold whenever I find myself battling against an unexpectedly bitter brew. Instead, I’ll just add a transformative pinch of salt.