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Every coffee enthusiast knows there can be some strict rules about what good coffee tastes like. So, when I tell someone to try a pinch of salt in their coffee, it usually earns me a strange look.
It’s not as strange as you think, though. Salt and coffee have been common drink companions for a long time.
First, let’s define what bitterness means when we’re talking about coffee. Coffee without milk or sugar may not taste sweet, but that’s not the same thing as bitter. When coffee tastes bitter, it’s a problem with the brewing process.
Coffee that’s brewed for too long becomes over-extracted. This means too much of the plant’s water-insoluble compounds wind up in the final cup. The flavor this imparts has an unpleasant taste and mouthfeel.
Coffee can also taste bitter when it’s left for too long on a hot plate. The rich, satisfying flavor of fresh-brewed coffee begins to break down after 20-30 minutes. When a carafe of coffee sits on a heat source for too long, water continues to evaporate. You’re then left with a stale, concentrated flavor that leaves a sour aftertaste in your mouth.
Pinpointing when adding salt to coffee started is a bit of a guessing game. It’s easy to link the popularity of the practice among coastal communities to the availability of brackish waters. Brackish water has a higher salt content than freshwater, but still less than seawater. The dynamic between salt and coffee would be common knowledge for anyone living in those regions.
Over time, salt became cheaper and easier to get as a pre-packaged seasoning. Once it was in every home cook’s kitchen, it was only a matter of time before they would find experimental uses for it. This is how the popularity of adding salt to coffee took root in many places around the world.
Pairing savory and sweet flavors is now as much a trend as it was once a tradition. Savory, slow-extracted cold brews or salt-sprinkled hot mochas are now common coffee shop favorites.
The sodium in coffee is only a trace amount. But, this isn’t the only reason why people choose to add salt to their coffee. Some studies show that caffeine intake has a significant impact on sodium levels in the body.
Caffeine influences urinary production — it makes you pee more, is what I’m trying to say. The more you pee, the more sodium your body processes into waste. To counteract that effect, people may add salt to increase the sodium in coffee directly.
Beverages associated with sweet flavors benefit most from a small application of salt. All it takes is a pinch to wake up the true nutty, roasted richness of a well-brewed cup of coffee.
Bitter or unbalanced coffee can leave the mouth feeling dry or soured. A bit of salt in coffee can actually enhance the natural sweetness of the coffee. This may cancel out the unpleasant body of bitter coffee.
We all know that comforting and familiar scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Add a dash of salt to the coffee grounds before they brew to help the scent of coffee match its flavor.
Some coffees are more acidic than others. Those that have a fresh, citrusy quality to their acidic components are favored the most. Salt can take the edge off any acid-induced bitterness and reveal the clean taste of those bright notes.
Common descriptions of coffee’s flavor include fruity and nutty. Fruity flavors may impart a hint of berries or cherries, while nuttier notes draw the comparison to chocolate or toast. Salt can enhance the nuance and depth of these flavors in coffee.
This is just the influence salt has on plain, black coffee. In the next section, we explore how well coffee and salt play with milk and sugar.
As a trend, adding salt to coffee isn’t destined for the top five most popular drink seasonings. But, it stands a good chance of being anyone’s secret weapon when it comes to ordering certain items off the menu.
We’re not talking about how a little salt can save a bad cup of coffee, here, either. We’ll assume that the basics of making a decent cup of coffee or espresso-based drink are solid. Where salt plays an important part is in pairing it with complementary flavors.
We know that a sprinkle of salt in a hot chocolate is downright revolutionary. A mocha, which is a latte made with chocolate syrup, with a pinch of salt could be as groundbreaking as its non-caffeinated cousin.
Plenty of coffee shops dress up a caramel latte by calling it a Salted Caramel Latte. That pairing is a known winner, but when added to a rich, full-bodied espresso base, the results are phenomenal.
Any honey-based flavoring for coffee drinks also reacts well to a touch of salt, so feel free to experiment. Dairy alternatives may be lower in sodium than other milk products. Coffee made with these alternatives may taste more familiar with a small bit of added salt.
If you’re new to putting salt in the coffee, start slow. Some aficionados like to add a sprinkle to the grounds so that the salt dissolves as the coffee brews. This may be more popular with espresso-based drinks than drip-brewed ones.
Drip-brew coffees may benefit from the addition of salt at the end of the extraction process. You may find yourself reaching for a pinch of salt if you’re stuck somewhere with only a bitter or stale carafe to comfort you. Use it sparingly to help you cut through the acrid taste of poorly made coffee.
Try it out with coffee you make at home so you can order with confidence the next time you’re getting your favorite drink from the coffee shop.
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