Last Updated on October 1, 2020 by Cristina Vélez
Salt does much more than giving a salty flavor. While doing experiments with a variety of foods (soups, rice, eggs, and potato chips), scientists have found that salt can: enhance sweetness, mask metallic or chemical off-notes, and round out overall flavor while improving flavor intensity. Professional chefs and home cooks around the world are well aware that salt enhances flavors. But, does this work with coffee?
Can salt make coffee taste better?
The answer is yes, salt may improve the flavor of coffee, and the main reason is because of the bitterness-suppressing powers of salt. This is only a good idea, of course, if your coffee is too bitter to begin with, which is not always the case.
WARNING: Before you start experimenting with adding salt to your morning coffee, be aware that it’s very easy to overdo the amount of salt needed, and make your coffee taste horribly salty. Keep reading, and you’ll learn about how to find the correct dose.
Is bitterness in coffee a bad thing?
Imagine dark chocolate or a cold beer, without bitterness; they would too bland and not be very appealing. Bitterness is an essential part of the taste profile of coffee, together with acidity, natural sweetness, body, and aroma. The critical element here is balance. When bitterness is too little, coffee tastes flat; when it’s too much, coffee becomes unpleasant, or even undrinkable.
Not everybody has the same sensitivity or likes the same amount of bitterness, though. Your preferred tastes can also change with time and experience. If you don’t believe me, just remember what your favorite foods were when you were a kid, and what you prefer to eat or drink now.
Frequently, we encounter coffee that’s too bitter, and we may not even be aware that bitterness is the problem, it just tastes like bad coffee.
How does salt neutralize bitterness?
Before we can understand how salt interacts with bitterness, let’s do a quick review of how the sense of human taste works.
Bitterness is one of four primary flavor sensations, together with sour, sweet, salty, and umami (or savory). In the past, people thought there were different sensors for each flavor, and that these flavor-specific sensors were located in separate areas of the tongue. Recent research has shown this is not the case. All of our taste buds are capable of reacting to all primary flavors, although in a complex way.
We know now that tastes interact between them. In general, salts and acids enhance each other at moderate concentrations but suppress each other at higher levels. Bitter compounds and acids can either intensify or neutralize each other, depending on the concentration and the type of food. Sodium salts and bitter compounds generally interact so that bitterness is suppressed to some variable degree, and the saltiness is unaffected. And there are exceptions to these general rules.
Salt is used as a universal taste enhancer because when you use it sparingly, it suppresses bitterness but also increases the sensation of sweet, sour, and umami, which makes savory foods taste better.
Under normal circumstances, when a taste bud finds something bitter, it releases a calcium ion that sends an electric signal to your brain, which your brain interprets as “you’re tasting something bitter”. When salt is also present, it interferes with this reaction, therefore blocking the sensation of bitterness.
Other effects of salt in coffee
Not everybody perceives flavor in the same way, so take the following with a grain of salt (pun intended). Apart from a reduction in bitterness, people report that adding salt to coffee can have the following effects:
- Amplify sweetness. It can be either the natural sweetness already present in coffee or the sweetness from the sugar or sweetener that you like to add.
- Lower sourness in light roast coffee beans. Light roasts are inherently less bitter, so there is not much bitterness to neutralize.
- Improve the flavor of stale water. This one comes from a video made by TV personality Alton Brown, where he helped popularize the concept of adding salt to coffee. But why on Earth would you have to correct the flavor of stale water? I say, get rid of stale water and make sure you’re using fresh water every time you make coffee. It should be easy to do.
How much salt should I add to my coffee?
Salt perception is not universal. The same thing happens for the suppression of bitterness by adding salt: some people are more sensitive to it than others. This is why finding the right amount of salt to add to your coffee requires some experimentation.
Alton Brown, whom we mentioned previously, recommends in his blog to add ¼ of a teaspoon for every six tablespoons of ground coffee. I tried this, and found the resulting coffee tastes noticeably salty, but your mileage may vary. You can add the salt either before brewing, by adding it to the ground beans, or after brewing, directly on your cup.
For testing purposes, it’s preferable to add salt to one cup at a time. That way, if you overdo the salt, then you would only have to throw away one cup, instead of a whole carafe of coffee.
To make dosing easier, I recommend using a 20% saline solution, which is salt diluted in plain water, preferably in a dropper bottle. Once you have this saline solution, try using one or more drops per cup of brewed coffee, until you find the taste is just right.
Is adding salt good for your health?
Adding salt to your coffee will increase (obviously) your overall consumption of salt. This may be a concern if you have any health condition that requires you to diminish how much salt you ingest, like high blood pressure.
Most healthy people don’t need to worry about limiting their salt intake, as they explain in this Scientific American article.
On the other hand, drinking regular coffee takes salt away from your body, because coffee is a known diuretic, which means it makes you pee more often. Adding salt to your coffee may counterbalance this, but it all depends on how much coffee you drink and how much salt you consume.
Alternatives for reducing bitterness in your coffee
Salt is just one available option to possibly improve the taste of your cup of coffee. I often find myself using instead just milk for the same purpose (because milk is usually easy to find). In many cases, you can make a cup of mediocre coffee drinkable just by adding a combination of enough milk, cream, and sugar.
Another good option you may want to try is cold brew coffee. Because most of the bitter compounds inside the coffee beans require heat for their extraction, when you brew without heat, the bitterness is considerably reduced. I recommend you try this in the summer, or whenever you feel like having a cold coffee beverage instead of something hot.
Not having to add salt to your coffee is preferable. If you procure yourself with high-quality beans, make sure they are freshly roasted and take good care of brewing your coffee the right way, you will have a balanced and delicious cup of coffee without the need for any additions like salt, milk, cream, or sugar.
On the other hand, if you find yourself drinking coffee that somebody else prepared (as I often do) and you think it’s a bit too bitter, then adding a (very) small amount of salt can be a good solution.
Remember, the “correct” way of drinking coffee is always the one you prefer. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find that adding that pinch of salt is just what you need.
This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)