Adding salt to coffee isn't as crazy as it sounds


For as long as I can remember I have been both parts intrigued and baffled by my dad's inclination to add salt to his coffee. When we are out at a restaurant it genuinely delights him to see the look on a waiters face when he asks for salt to add to his coffee. It always gets him into a conversation with the server who usually can't believe he's about to commit such an act of beverage sabotage.

Now my dad grew up in Zanzibar and as a kid he used to watch the old Arab and African men around Stone Town adding salt into their coffee. This was where he started drinking the stuff, he followed their example and has never looked back. 

I really love coffee but I haven't followed in my fathers footsteps when it comes to his love of a salty brew. I have however looked into the idea and realised that he is far from alone and there is in fact a fair bit of science that backs up the idea.

I found this fantastic article at the Little Coffee Place which I think really explains the benefits of salt and is making me consider giving it a go. 

Just in case you haven't heard of the Little Coffee Place, they are a group of experts who love coffee as much as we do. They are a great place to go to learn more about home brewing, barista skills and of course the coffee itself. 


Adding Salt to Coffee Helps Combat Bitterness

I’m sure you’ve all had a cup of coffee that was more bitter than usual, and there’s a reason for it. A common misconception regarding bitterness is the amount of caffeine in the beans, while this is part of the cause it isn’t the main reason. 

In fact, only 15% of the bitterness found in coffee comes from caffeine. Most of the bitterness is caused by two sneaky compounds named Phenylindanes and chlorogenic acid lactones.

The good news is that these bitter compounds are antioxidants which is a good thing, but surprisingly, they are not present in the raw green coffee beans and only appear when the beans are roasted.

Light to medium roasted coffee beans typically has a higher amount of chlorogenic acid lactones present which is the dominant reason for the bitterness. The darker you go with your roast level you will have more Phenylindanes compounds present.

Phenylindanes are produced when the Chlorogenic acid lactones are broken down by the longer roasting process. These compounds tend to leave a harsher and more lingering bitter taste on your palate.

So unsurprisingly, the darker your roasted coffee beans the more bitter your brew will taste.

But, all is not lost – salt can help with that bitterness!

How Does Salt Reduce the Bitterness?

It comes as no surprise that your tongue plays a role in acknowledging the bitterness found in coffee. Your tongue can identify five of the basic food types: Bitter, Sweet, Sour, Salty, and savory umami flavors.

Research shows (2) that the biological mechanism for producing Sweet, Salty, Sour, and Umami share many similarities. Salt, while being an identifiable taste itself, works to amplify these other flavors. Just like adding a pinch of salt to your cooking to help elevate the flavors.

However, the bitter taste on the tongue works in a different way. Instead of the normal reaction on the tongue, the taste buds release a calcium ion which in turn transmits a ‘bitter’ signal to the brain.

… And this is where salt comes into play.

The chemistry behind this is still unclear but what scientists do know is that salt in coffee overrides the reaction on the taste buds which thereby helps to mask the bitterness of the coffee.

This Isn’t a New Trend!

Adding salt to your coffee isn’t a new trend thought up by a tattooed, bearded barista wearing skinny jeans. It’s been around for quite some time and a pinch of salt has traditionally (3) been added to coffee in places such as Northern Scandinavia, Turkey, Hungary, and even Siberia.

This salty tradition is thought to have begun in coastal regions around Europe where the sea joins the internal rivers inland and locals used the brackish to brew up their coffee.

The brackish water is typically less salty compared to seawater, brackish water has a salt content of roughly 0.5-3%, which is lower than the average 3.5% found in pure seawater. The final brew would have been foamier compared to the coffee we all know and love today.

You Could Be the Reason Your Coffee is Bitter!

The roast level of your coffee beans can’t take all the blame for the bitterness, your brewing could be the problem.

Something as simple as leaving your coffee to steep for too long or over brewing your coffee can cause unwanted bitterness. Even grinding your coffee too fine or using the wrong ratios and coffee past it the expiration date, all add to that bitterness.

There really isn’t an exact science on how to add salt to your coffee. However, I stumbled across this suggestion by celebrity chef Alton Brown. He advises (4) adding just a quarter teaspoon of salt to roughly 10 ½ grams of ground coffee.

This should be enough salt in the coffee to neutralize any lingering bitterness that might be present in the beans and it will also help to pull out the additional sweetness that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Are There Any Health Benefits for Adding a Pinch of Salt?

By drinking coffee you’re already reaping some health benefits. Gone are the days where coffee was touted as being unhealthy, the latest research is out and coffee is good for you. Coffee is packed full of antioxidants and much-needed nutrients such as magnesium and potassium, to name just a few.

Studies also suggest that drinking up to four cups of coffee a day can help to lower your risk of certain debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Now getting back to salt.

Drinking coffee throughout the day does have a slight negative outcome, it makes you want to urinate due to the caffeine in the coffee having a diuretic effect.

Yes, your cup of coffee is potentially causing your system to flush out the salt and if you don’t keep your sodium chloride in check, your body could become depleted of this essential nutrient.

Studies show that drinking just four cups of coffee per day can cause you to flush down the toilet up to 1200 mg of sodium, which, funnily enough, is roughly the recommended daily amount you should be consuming.

I know the chances of you becoming deficient in sodium chloride due to drinking coffee are slim; we get salt in almost everything we eat especially processed foods, so there’s no reason for your levels to drop dramatically.

So, getting to the point. If you drink a lot of coffee throughout the day adding a sprinkle of salt to your coffee with not only remove some bitterness but it will also help to keep your sodium chloride in check.