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Add a Pinch of Salt to Your Coffee

by TopBusinessView

At Bon Appétit, we spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to make coffee. We brew the coldest cold brew. We track down the highest quality beans. We add ground spices to boost up the flavor like one of those exploding SpaceX jet engines. We’re caffeine gremlins in the eternal search for the tastiest cup of coffee possible and I was beginning to think we may have found every single way possible to optimize and customize the coffee drinking experience. 

Naturally, I was wrong. There is one ingredient, almost definitely in your kitchen right now, that happily pairs with coffee: salt. We know salt is the foundation for pretty much everything savory from soups to pastas, but it can do much more. It can brine meatcure egg yolkspreserve lemons, and, of course, supercharge chocolate chunk cookies.

But salt has one more trick up its sleeve. Adding it to coffee can actually cut some of the bitterness. In fact, salting coffee is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Siberia, and more recently, it has become popular in Vietnam, where coffee is combined with whipped, salted cream or milk. 

Why would salt make coffee less bitter?

Brewed coffee has a naturally bitter taste. Some people are even genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to that bitterness. But bitterness isn’t all bad: Many seek it out, since “our brains learn that drinking a cup of coffee provides positive reinforcement in the form of its stimulant activity,” Nik Sharma writes for Food52

Often, though, coffee’s natural bitterness is over-amplified by a longer brewing time, grinding the beans too finely, or when ground coffee has oxidized or gone stale. It’s here where salt comes into play. Sodium ions from salt bond to salt receptors on our tongue, basically blocking our brains from perceiving the bitter taste and boosting our perception of other flavors like sweetness.

How much salt should you add to coffee?

Alton Brown, who popularized this trick in the U.S. in a Food Network segment from 2009, suggested adding a ¼ tsp. salt to 12 Tbsp. freshly ground coffee (to yield a 6-cup pot of joe). If your pot is a little larger, that’s okay—like salting anything, we recommend starting small and increasing to taste. Adding a tiny pinch to an already brewed cup of coffee can work just as well. The flavor should become noticeably less bitter and acrid, and any bright fruity notes should be more pronounced. You’re free to adjust your ratio—as long as your coffee doesn’t begin to become briney. 

We tried it (and we loved it)

Sure, the science of it all lines up, but how does it work in practice? Digital operations associate and frequent coffee enjoyer Alma Avalle volunteered to be the guinea pig in this experiment, bravely sprinkling a generous pinch of salt into her morning coffee. Her results? Impressive. Shocking. It tamed the bitterness and magnified the flavor. Or, in her words, “Okay, this coffee bangs.”

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