If you haven’t heard of it, salt in coffee might seem like a strange combination. After all, who wants to drink salty coffee? But salt doesn’t actually make your coffee salty (alright, too much of it might). Its addition to the beverage actually has a rich tradition.
So, if you have a brew that hasn’t been working for you or some old beans you’re looking to spruce up, stick around and we’ll teach you something new.
History of Salted Coffee
Salted coffee has been in recorded use for hundreds of years. In Turkey, salted coffee is part of a wedding tradition. In Northern Scandinavia, it’s a popular practice to add salt to brewed coffee. In coastal areas of Europe, brackish water is often used to brew coffee.
In Vietnam, salt coffee is a common morning ritual, with a coffee shop in Hue said to be the original server of the drink. Even here in the US, the US Navy serves salted black coffee. The idea is to keep the soldiers hydrated and awake.
In 2009, Alton Brown changed the way Americans drink coffee forever during a Food Network segment. He suggested adding a pinch of salt directly to the coffee grounds. To this day, the technique is sometimes referred to as the “Alton Brown Trick.”
The Benefits of Salt in Coffee
There are several benefits that salt can provide when added to a cup of coffee. In general, the amount of salt you need to accomplish any of these is rather small, around a teaspoon of salt at most.
One of the common uses for salt is as water softener. If your coffee machine utilizes a water reservoir, it may allow you to make coffee more easily. But if the water sits there for too long, it can become stale. By adding some salt to the water or the coffee, you can get rid of that stale flavor.
There are even health benefits to putting salt in coffee. One symptom of common coffee consumption is decreased sodium levels. This is a result of caffeine being a diuretic. While the likelihood of this being a problem is extremely low, you can balance your caffeine intake with a dash of sodium for a “health boost.” Be aware, though, that some commercial coffees will already have sodium in them.
Salt also offers an alternative to sugar or cream. If you’re trying to cut back on sugar, using salt in your coffee instead can help.
Adding salt to coffee decreases the bitterness of the coffee and balances out some of the other flavors. Specifically, salt can be good at enhancing sweetness and acidity and reducing the bitter taste.
The quick science behind this comes from how sodium chloride (salt) reacts with bitterness. Taste buds actually deal with bitterness a little differently than other tastes. When someone drinks a cup of coffee, a calcium ion is released, telling the brain "this is bitter." Sodium chloride, however, binds to that part of the taste buds and masks the bitter flavor.
When Shouldn’t You Add Salt to Coffee
Although it probably goes without saying, you shouldn’t salt your coffee if you’re on a low-sodium diet. If you need to watch your blood pressure, this also may not be for you.
Other times to avoid salting are when you have high quality coffee. The more complex flavors could be masked by the salt. Light roast coffees, which tend to have greater flavor to bitterness ratio, can also generally go without salting.
Salt, once you get past the idea of “saltiness,” works generally like you would expect it to. It enhances certain flavors in the coffee.
In some ways, this makes it similar to adding milk or sweeteners. It can improve the flavor of a bad brew or hide nuance in the flavor of a good brew. For this reason, be sure to use judgement when salting.
How to Add Salt to Your Coffee
There are a couple of different ways to approach adding salt to your coffee. The easiest way to distinguish them is by method of coffee brewing.
Alton Brown used a French Press to brew his coffee. With this method, you add the salt directly to the coffee grounds. Then you can brew your coffee as normal.
If you’re planning on making a cold brew, we suggest adding salt at the very end.
Similarly to cold brew, adding salt at the end of drip brew will allow you to control the amount and flavor.