“Cream or sugar?” It’s the thing you always hear when you order regular drip coffee. Some folks go for both, some one, others neither.
There’s another surprising add-in that’s been making the rounds among the legions of coffee geeks in the last few years. And if you’re eating out at your favorite breakfast spot, it’s right there next to the sugar packets and tiny metal pitcher of creamer: salt.
Add a Little Shake of Salt
Salting coffee may sound batty, but it really can perk up the flavor of a so-so cup. It only takes a little shake.
I first heard about this a few years ago in a piece that cookbook author and molecular biologist Nick Shwarma wrote for Food52. For ages I’ve wanted to try it but only recently thought to give it a shot. Maybe because the gallons of coffee I drink with my boyfriend every weekend are always lacking in nuance, with a charred edge. He likes the dark roast of a brand I won’t mention, and because he’s nice enough to brew the pot in the first place I always pour myself cup after cup, thinking “maybe this time it’ll taste better.”
Of course it never does, so I finally gave the salt trick a go. All I did was stir a small pinch into my steaming mug. It really did make a palpable difference.
How Does It Work?
Salt can lessen the perception of bitterness in foods. It’s why bitter vegetables like radicchio or broccoli rabe are often paired in recipes with salty ingredients like Parmesan or pancetta. On the science tip, of course there’s more to it than that.
To pull off this parlor trick yourself, all you need is some hot, bitter coffee and a very light hand with the salt. It’s a fun little experiment.
What Does It Taste Like? And How Do You Do It?
Not salty, for one. When you add a pinch of salt to a cup of coffee that’s merely drinkable, it rounds out that flavor. I find it feels a little fuller in your mouth. And yes, not quite as bitter.
I was curious what knowledgeable coffee people thought of this salt thing. I asked Irvin Lin, Simply Recipes’ resident coffee expert. “I do not add any salt to my coffee,” he said. “Personally, I find a properly brewed cup doesn’t need any help at all.”
That said, he did offer some tips for the salt-curious: “A tiny pinch is all you need. It’s easy to sprinkle too much salt in coffee, making it…salty. And I highly recommend a cleaner salt like sea salt or kosher salt. Don’t use iodized table salt. It will lend a metallic taste to your coffee.”
Coffee Nerds Take It Even Further
Next I asked Tony “Tonx” Konecny, cofounder of the fresh roasted coffee subscription service Yes Plz Coffee. I‘m a Yes Plz subscriber and I love their coffee. Drinking it is like imbibing a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s coffee I linger over, never guzzle.
His response didn’t surprise me. “I confess I haven’t tried the salt trick in many years, but I think it’s the sort of thing you treat as a last resort for particularly bad or bitter coffee,” Konecny said. “As a tangent, there are a lot of coffee nerds formulating their brew water to get better tasting extractions by adding magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). So in a way the pinch of salt thing is just an earlier version of the same sort of kitchen counter chemistry.”
If you’re not familiar with the behavior of coffee nerds, know that many will go out of their way to make a simple thing more complicated. Konecny is a little more diplomatic. “People will do a lot of fiddling around with toys or additives rather than make the simple switch to starting with really good fresh roasted beans.”
When to Salt, if at All
I’d never sully the coffee I get from my Yes Plz subscription with salt, because it does not need correcting. It’s lovely just as it is!
But not everyone wants coffee with citrusy top notes and hints of crisp toasted bread. It’s simply not what’s universally desired of the coffee drinking experience. And that’s okay. I mean, I still have a great time drinking pots of my boyfriend’s scorched-earth coffee on the weekends. Context is a highly overlooked factor in sensory experience. If the coffee or the company is bad to begin with, no amount of salt (or anything else) will help.