Obedient Ingredients

A place to put cooking ideas to the test.

Sea Salt in Coffee?

3 Comments

Coffee can be a sacred thing.

No matter how you treat your coffee –  whether you treat this universally-loved drink as a necessity to function as a productive or even awake human being, or whether you ritualize the meticulous step-by-step process with your freshly roasted beans to appease the coffee gods – coffee is important to many people.

Some get by fine with their same Folgers or Starbucks blends, and could care less about things such as “freshly roasted”, “perfect water temperature”, “whole beans vs. ground.”

Some people care (read:obsess) over the different brewing methods: there is drip, but then we get into more fancy territory with devices such as the French Press, Aeropress, cold brewing, Chemex, Siphon, and pour over … and this is just normal coffee. I’m not even talking about espressos.

This post will focus on my preferred method of brewing – the French Press – and look into an interesting trick given to us by none other than Alton Brown:

Putting salt into the coffee.

Is there a difference in one’s coffee when sea salt is added to the brewing process?

Sea salt in coffee? OK, what do we know about salt so far regarding salt and food…

I know that sea salt has a different (and in my opinion, more pleasant) kick to it than table salt. Morton’s table salt would permeate the food more thoroughly, which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing. I want little sensations/mini-explosions of salt here and there; little bursts of taste AND texture. One of my first posts on salt and avocados explores this in more detail.

This benefit of sea salt (and I’ll just say that Kosher salt is pretty much identical to sea salt for our purposes here) applies to food.

But how does this affect a drink, like coffee?

The process here is to add the salt to the coffee grounds, so both ingredients will interact while the hot water is brewing the coffee. The actual salt crystals will not be in my cup, so the attribute of texture will not count here.

Salt has a tendency to “amp up” the flavors of things it is in. A lot of sweet baked goods contain salt for just this reason. Some foods, like cookies and cakes can taste a little “flat” without salt. So the idea that will hopefully be transferred to our drink is that salt will bring out the flavor of coffee….better. More? Something will maybe happen, so let’s find out.

Research:

This Chowhound thread discusses this very question. Some responses:

“Yes! I saw Alton Brown put a pinch of salt in his coffee on a Good Eats episode. I tried it in my coffee at work (which is also Starbucks) and it was greatly improved.”

“A friend’s mother worked in a “greasy spoon” diner – you know, the ones that have the best egg & bacon breakfasts, bottomless coffee and Saturday morning breakfast lineups out the door! She said the secret to their coffee was to put a pinch of salt in the filter with the ground coffee. You don’t need much – a pinch will do for a whole pot!”

Here is my favorite response: “Just tried salt. No worse certainly. Better? Requires a double blind test, I think.”

That’s where Obedient Ingredients comes in!

Here is a hilarious post from CNN (hilarious because CNN is the worst…in my opinion).

Anyway, here is the actual recipe from Alton Brown himself, in a drink apparently called “Man Coffee”:

Ingredients

  • 24 fluid ounces filtered water
  • 1/2 cup freshly ground coffee
  • Pinch kosher salt

Directions

Bring water to a boil in an electric kettle or in the microwave. Meanwhile, place the ground coffee and salt into a French press. Pour the water over the grounds. Place the plunger in the carafe, but do not press down. Brew for 4 minutes, then slowly push the plunger down. Drink immediately or hold in a thermos for up to 3 hours.

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Finally, I need to give credit to the wonderful submitters at the Reddit /r/coffee; this is one of my finest resources for all coffee knowledge and enthusiasm. I learn a great deal about proper water/grounds ratios and trying different kinds of beans (personal favorite: Central American, although beans from the Conogo rock) and so on.

A thread posed the question “What do you do to make your coffee better?” And the idea of adding a pinch of salt (crediting Mr. Brown) was thrown out there quite a bit.

Now this blog simply needs to put this question to the test and figure out if indeed there is a difference.

I like coffee.

Experiments

I take my coffee seriously, so I knew I would have to really measure everything correctly, for science. Water temperature, amount of grounds, and brewing time would have to be measured carefully.

I did two experiments: one that was more rushed together, and then another that was set up in a more meticulous fashion…for science!

Experiment #1

I always grind my beans before I brew it. I use my Cuisinart Coffee Grinder and Equal Exchange Congo Coffee Project coffee for these tests. My French Press is the simple one from Ikea.

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I simply made a French Press coffee without the salt and proceeded to pour it in two mugs on my table. After washing the press when my first batch of coffee was finished,  I put the same amounts of grounds but this time did one turn of my Pink Salt grinder into the coffee. Same amount of coffee as the first round (3 tablespoons) same amount of water (I measured 1 1/2 mugs of coffee…not exact, I know) and same brewing time (4 minutes).

My brother would be going blind on this one, yet I knew which coffee contained which brew. My brother likes coffee and appreciates good coffee, yet is not as much of a fanatic as I am.

Brother’s reactions: The mug of coffee with the salt (unbeknownst to him while he was drinking it) was, in his words, “noticeably different than the other mug [without the salt], yet it was hard to put my finger on it. I actually taste the coffee LESS in this mug [with salt in it], it is almost milder. There is no after taste with, and when this coffee hits the back of the tongue it lacks that normal acidic taste.”

This is NOT the description one would expect when we all hypothesize salt bettering taste.

My own reaction to the salted coffee was that it tasted a bit sweeter, in a good way. However, I was very mindful that it could have been in my head the entire time. It was clear that the taste testers needed to do this blind.

As for my brother’s reaction, there are too many variables in place that could have affected his judgement: the coffee I made for this on-the-fly experiment was not my normal ratio, therefore, not a very strong cup of coffee. So it was weaker overall. I said I turned the salt mill once into the coffee…but next time it needs to be measured. Or perhaps less (is a pinch less than a mill turn of salt?). Then the trickiest part: one coffee was hotter than the other, since there was about 5-6 minutes between the time I poured the first coffee (with no salt) and the time I poured the salted coffee.

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Experiment # 2

Now things are more meticulous. I used the same grinder to grind the beans right before the experiment. But this time I had TWO french presses.

This time, however, I was using Counter Culture coffee. I used the Jagong, Sumatra blend, which was a medium roast, full-bodied, notes of dark chocolate and spices. It is really, really good coffee. You should check out Counter Culture coffee. They are the best! (Sponsor me please! Or send me free coffee!)

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Amount of coffee in each french press: 3 tablespoons.

Amount of boiling water in each french press: 8 oz, or 1 cup.

Time brewed: 5 minutes.

One french press has a pinch of salt. The other does not.

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Since I now have two french presses, I can brew both at the same time. There was no more than 10 or 15 seconds between the time I poured the water into the first press and then the second.

My girlfriend, who just woke up and only wanted a simple cup of coffee, instead got two cups shoved in her face as I asked “do you want to help me with an experiment?!” It wasn’t really a question. I put the two mugs in front of her and a pen and paper, with two boxes: cup 1 and cup 2. “What differences do you taste, if any?” She didn’t know I was testing one cup of coffee that had been brewed with some salt. Honestly, since she was still waking up, I’m not sure if she knew what was going on at all. But she helped me out.

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Results:

Girlfriend:

Cup 1 (with no salt, just a black up of coffee): “More bitter. Better aftertaste. Kick!”

Cup 2 (with a pinch of salt): “Smells sweeter. Tastes tangier than cup 1. Subtler taste.”

“I liked both cups equally.”

Me:

Cup 1 (no salt): “More bitter. Smoother taste. Earthier”

Cup 2 (salt): “Sweeter, but saltier. Tangier taste.”

“I like Cup 1 much better”

My testing station.

My testing station.

Conclusions

It seems that adding salt does a few major things: it makes the coffee sweeter, and reduces that coffee bitterness. From these experiments, I do not think that it enhances the coffee taste.

You know, I’m not really sure the extra salt is preferable. Is there a difference when salt is used? Yes, definitely. There are some pleasant qualities to the added salt (read, sweetness), and there is a reduction of bitterness, to be sure. But less bitterness is not always a better thing.

The next experiment should involve lower quality coffee, since both blends I used were very high quality. So any bitterness that is part of the taste is usually a good bitterness, in my opinion. I could understand how a pinch of sea salt can make bad coffee more pleasant. But since I pay good $$ for better coffee, AND since the salt does not seem to ENHANCE the flavor, I do not see the need for the addition of salt.

Does this mean I need to do this test again with bad coffee? It depends which part of me is stronger: the food scientist or the coffee snob.

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3 thoughts on “Sea Salt in Coffee?

  1. Nice post, A.J. I might just have to try this myself, out of curiosity. I’m a French Press girl and I usually add some good quality cinnamon to my grounds before pouring the water. I find that it adds some sweetness without the floating cinnamon problem that happens when you add it to the top of your coffee. I’ll let you know if I try adding salt!

  2. I’m new to coffee and am getting most of my info from the same subreddit as you. I also tried the salt trick recently in my drip, as well at trying french press for the first time. I think the main thing is that coffee has a such a rich and diverse palette that we all might love coffee but we love different things about it. My partner and I hated the french press. It made the coffee taste burnt like charcoal to us. We would like to try a cold drip setup, because our research says that it will enhance the milder, sweeter, smoky, and savory aspects of the coffee. The salt added to our regular Mr. Coffee drip pot turned out amazing for us. Our beans are of a medium quality (best we have found locally as of now) and after the salt trick I was able to enjoy my first cup of black coffee with only and teaspoon of sugar. I think the salt enhances certain aspects of the flavor, and it depends on what aspects you like if it woks for you.

  3. I was introduced to the idea of adding salt to coffee by a Japanese TV program. They were investigating the Sudanese trick of adding a (very) little salt to older coffee to “undo” the bitterness. The program explained that coffee reacts with air as it sits in a mug, and the oxidation gives a bitter taste. This is probably not a surprise to most of you. The TV program claimed that the addition of a little salt “reversed” the oxidation process, making the coffee taste fresh again. Their blind taste tests were successful (well, the ones they showed were, anyway). The effect always seemed a little mysterious to me; metal oxidizes but salt doesn’t reverse that process.

    This site suggests a more interesting explanation: http://blog.khymos.org/2010/03/21/a-pinch-of-salt-for-your-coffee-sir/
    They note that “the sodium ion (Na+) that interferes with the transduction mechanism of bitter taste” and back it up with a good bibliography of links at the bottom of the page.

    I’d never heard of adding coffee *during* the brew, as you tried. Looking back on your tasting notes, do you think your results indicate lower bitterness?

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