Salt In Coffee: What's It All About?

Salt In Coffee: What's It All About?

It’s not just an April Fool’s prank anymore.
by Ever Meister | October 01, 2022

It’s not just an April Fool’s prank anymore: There are really people who intentionally put salt in their coffee, and genuinely swear by it. But why, and does it make a difference?

The Power of Salt

Any chef knows that salt is a wonderful flavor enhancer: It makes sweet things taste richer, softens bitter flavors, and increases the mouthwatering quality of savory foods. We salt caramel to create a more dynamic flavor and prevent it from being cloying. We salt meat and eggs to bump up the umami factor that makes us crave those protein-rich foods. And we can also use salt to tamp down bitterness—think of the salty bacon that collard greens taste best with.

Bitterness—that’s one of the key components of coffee’s flavor, though we certainly don’t want too much of it. Can salt help cut through overly bitter coffee and create a softer flavor experience? Research says yes—maybe.

Yes, People Do Salt Coffee

In an episode of his show Good Eats, famous food-science nerd Alton Brown claimed to add salt to his coffee grounds—and it turns out he adds as much as a ¼ teaspoon per 6 tablespoons of coffee—before brewing a pot in order to cut through the beans’ bitterness.

He wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, though: Globally, the act of salting coffee has been practiced for hundreds of years and is still somewhat common in various places around the world, including Finland and East Asia. Soldiers during World War II—especially in the Navy, where some coffee-brewing water might be tainted with sea water—would sometimes add salt to the cheap, bitter coffee that was ubiquitous in order to keep the troops alert. Many brought the habit home with them after the war.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Salting Your Coffee

As with everything else related to how you ground your coffee beans and prepare your morning cup, there are no absolutes: There are good and bad things about adding salt to your coffee.

One plus? It may enhance your brew’s natural sweetness in addition to neutralizing bitterness. One downside? Your friends and breakfast companions might give you some pretty weird looks, especially if they sweeten coffee as part of their coffee consumption routine.

While adding salt to coffee that you know to be on the bitter side can make the drink more palatable, adding salt without trying a coffee first might rob you of the chance to taste a great coffee in its glory. Additionally, the combination of salted coffee with cream and sugar might create too bland a flavor to be interesting: Many folks who salt their coffee intend to drink it black in order to retain some of that nuance.

It’s also worth considering whether adding salt to your coffee can affect your health: In moderation, iodized salt has been shown to help with thyroid function. Those who are on medically prescribed low-sodium diets or who have heart concerns, however, might need to avoid the extra sodium.

How Much Salt Is Ideal? (Not Much)

For starters, how much salt should you add? After all, you may not want salty coffee being the first thing to hit your taste buds in the morning. Alton Brown said that his ideal amount of salt was just enough to cut through the bitterness without actually making his morning cup of coffee taste salty—and that’s a pretty fine line.

Coffee roaster, consultant, educator, and author Scott Rao conducted his own salted coffee experiment in 2019 and found that adding 0.15 grams of salt for every 100 grams of coffee grounds was the sweet spot in reducing the bitterness of a coffee without making the drink taste salty.

While both Rao and Brown are adding salt to their coffee grounds before brewing, others choose to add salt after the fact to the finished beverage: In this case, start very small (less than a pinch at a time, stirring well until all of the granules have dissolved) and adjust to taste.

Can Coffee Ever Taste Naturally Salty?

If you look closely at the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, you will find “Salty” on the third ring out from the center, snuggled in between “Medicinal” and “Bitter” under the category of “Chemical.” Not exactly delicious, huh? There’s a reason it’s there and not, say, over with the spices or with olive oil and vegetal notes.

That’s because salty flavors aren’t supposed to be in coffee—not inherently, anyway.

The presence of salty flavors in green or roasted coffee (with nothing added to the brew) typically indicates a taint or defect: Sometimes, it’s due to unfiltered brewing water, and sometimes it’s the result of a processing error.

One other possibility is that we often associate salty flavors with savory flavors: We tend to salt meat before eating it, for instance, and cheese is salty in part because salt is used heavily in processing dairy. So, if you taste a straight black coffee with notes of savory flavors like tomato or toasted nuts, you may associate it with salt and be more inclined to “taste” it.

Worth Your Salt

Is there a kind of salt that’s better to use in coffee than others? Not universally.

Longer-grain salts like kosher salt, coarse sea salt, and flaky sea salt dissolve quickly but can taste saltier; table salt might require a bit more heft a dose in order to have the same effect. Himalayan pink salt is found to have lower sodium than table salt but can also be expensive. Whether you’re deciding between light roast vs dark roast coffee, consider adding a pinch of salt to see how you like it.

Is there a method for adding salt to coffee?

For your standard cup of slow-brewed coffee or instant coffee, you can add salt like kosher salt right after your brew it. As for iced coffee and other cold brew coffee blends, consider adding a dash of milk and a pinch of salt to taste.

Ultimately, the expression “salt to taste” really means just that here: Why not try salting coffee one morning, play around a little, and see if you like it? At the very least, you’ll be prepared for next April Fool’s. When you’re looking for other ways to spruce up your coffee routine, make sure to brew your beans long enough to avoid sour coffee tastes.

With so many different coffee beans and roasts to choose from, it can be difficult to select the best brew for you. Trade is here to help. Take our coffee quiz and sign up for our coffee subscription to discover your favorite coffee bean blend.

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