You may have heard about the strange coffee trend of adding salt to your brew. It may seem strange, but it might actually become your new favorite trick. Salt is used in many different cultures in coffee to reduce its bitterness and to enhance its flavors. It can even become a viable sugar substitute and works just as well with other additives.
What Cultures Use Salt in their Coffee?
As stated before, there and many different cultures that like adding salt to coffee. Turkish coffee, for instance, has spices. Because of this, salt is used in different ways. Women use it for an informal pre-marriage ritual. In this, they brew coffee with salt for their future husband and serve it to him to see the outcome of the marriage.
Taiwan was the first country in Asia to popularize salted coffee with salted foam. It is called by the name of ‘sea salt coffee’ and is, simplified, an iced Americano with sea salt whipped cream.
Benefits to Adding Salt
For the taste, salt can be really helpful with removing the bitterness of coffee without removing its other flavors. It can even be better at neutralizing it than sugar can. It is especially useful in dark roasts (Light Roast vs Dark Roast Coffee Beans – What are the differences?), which are naturally more bitter. It can also help to bring out the natural sweetness in the coffee. If you use stale water, the addition of salt is good for smoothing out this stale taste and making the water denser.
For health benefits (The Health Benefits of Drinking Coffee), salt is a much more healthy additive to coffee than the more traditional ones. Coffee itself is full of antioxidants and can help to lower the risk of dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. The addition of other additives like sugar and creamers (How Is Caffeine In Coffee Affected By Sugar And Cream?) can be unhealthy enough to negate some of these benefits. Adding salt will not make coffee as sweet as other things may, but it will smooth out the bitterness without being as unhealthy. It can even taste better since sugar only masks the bitterness, while salt completely neutralizes it.
Two other benefits relate to acid reflux and sodium intake. Adding salt can actually help to eliminate the acid reflux you may experience after drinking coffee. Coffee is acidic (How to Brew Low Acid Coffee for Upset Stomachs), with an average pH of 4.85 to 5.10. The pH of NaCl, or salt, is an average of 7, the neutral pH. As a neutral combined with an acid, it will help to raise the pH of the coffee, making it less acidic and thus less likely to cause acid reflux. As for sodium intake, the recommended amount is 1200mg per day. Drinking four cups of coffee can actually make your body lose this much. By adding salt, which is a compound of sodium and chloride, you can help to give back some of the sodium lost.
The Science Behind Adding Salt
Many people think that the bitterness in coffee comes from caffeine, but that is actually not true. Only 15% of the bitterness is from caffeine (Understanding Caffeine: The Pros and Cons). The bulk of the bitterness comes from chlorogenic acid lactones and phenylindanes. Chlorogenic acids are present in the un-roasted coffee beans, giving them a slightly green color. The chlorogenic acids will break down when the beans are roasted, which will release the lactones and phenylindanes. The concentration of phenylindanes in the coffee is connected to the length of the roast. This is because phenylindanes are created from the breakdown of the lactones, so darker roasts that have been brewed longer will therefore be more bitter since they have more phenylindanes.
We all know about taste buds and know that they recognize five main tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Taste happens when taste receptors on the cells on your tongue receive small molecules called ligands and bind to them. For example, if the sweet receptor senses a ligand given off of a sweet substance, it will bind. This causes a bodily response that will lead to you tasting the sweetness of the food that you eat. Bitterness, however, comes through with a different process. When the taste receptors recognize a bitter ligand, they send calcium (Ca) ions to the brain. If you add salt, the sodium will bind to the salt receptor while Ca is sent to the brain. For some reason, salt overrides the calcium ions, inhibiting the perception of bitterness. While doing this, salt also helps to amplify the other flavors since the biological mechanism for recognizing them all is the same.
Other Reasons for Bitterness
Besides the natural lactones and phenylindanes that make coffee bitter, there are also a few other reasons your coffee is bitter. You could be over brewing it or letting it steep for too long, releasing more phenylindanes. You could also be using water that is too hot; remember that the ideal water temperature when brewing coffee is 195-205F. Using coffee grounds that are too fine can lead to bitterness if they are over-extracted. Obviously, if you use too much coffee in proportion to water, it will be more bitter. A final reason is you may be using stale or poor quality coffee beans or dirty brewing equipment.
How to Use Salt in Your Coffee
There are a few different opinions on how you should use salt in your coffee. One common method is to mix the salt in with the coffee grounds. If you do it this way, you should start with a ratio of 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt to 6 tablespoons of coffee grounds. After testing it out a few times, you can change the salt amount to your liking.
The other method is to mix the salt into the already brewed coffee. This way is the more common way to use salt since it is easier to control the amount you have added. When just starting out, you should try the coffee before slowly adding salt until you are satisfied. There are also a few more different ratios you can use. The most common is 1/2 teaspoon of salt for every 1 cup of water and 2 teaspoons of ground coffee. A second is 0.5g of salt for every 1L of coffee, a very small amount. A third option is 0.15g of salt for every 100g of brewed coffee. When doing this, just remember that the salt is being used to balance the flavors, so smaller amounts will probably be better.
Cons of Using Salt
For using salt itself, there are some overall problems. Although the body needs sodium to survive, too much salt can lead to a variety of health problems. The most common would be high blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke. It can also lead to a loss of calcium, which could be taken from the bones.
Another problem is that if you need salt to undo the bitterness in your coffee, it may be better to turn your focus towards buying better-quality beans. Salt is really good at balancing out the flavors in a low-quality bean, but it is just better to get a high-quality bean and not need salt. Using salt in high-quality beans can obscure the delicate flavors. These coffees are usually more complex, so using salt in them can make it harder to taste the more subtle flavors that are present. In addition to this, higher-quality coffee is made to have just the right amount of bitterness because of its balance, which is why you will not need salt for it.
Wrapping It Up
To conclude the large amount of information in this article, putting salt in your coffee may be your new favorite trick if you try it. Why? It takes away the bitterness of a brew, especially one that is made from lower-quality coffee beans. As a neutral compound, it can help to balance out the acidity of coffee, lowering your risk of acid reflux after drinking. It is not as unhealthy as other common additives that are used for extra flavors. It is actually better at eliminating the possibly unwanted bitter flavors of coffee than these other additives.
How does it do this? The sodium in the salt binds to the salt receptor on your taste buds, effectively canceling out the calcium ions that are sent to your brain when you taste something bitter. In addition to this, it can even help to enhance the other flavors since the mechanism for tasting the other three senses is the same.
How? You can either add the salt to the coffee grounds or put a pinch into the brewed coffee. Either way, start with a small amount. Too much salt can lead to a plethora of health problems and will probably make your coffee taste worse.
What else can you do besides adding salt? The reason for adding salt is that your coffee is bitter. If you want to drink coffee without adding salt, but dislike the bitter taste, try getting higher-quality beans. Salt is mostly useful on low-quality beans and is not usually necessary for high-quality beans.