A Pinch Of Salt Can Save An Overly Bitter Cup Of Coffee

Say you did it all wrong today. You heaped in too much coffee for your morning brew or you accidentally ground your beans into dust and decided to use them anyway. Maybe you're traveling and, after taking a sip from the only coffee you can grab, you get that universally known, singularly disappointing coffee taste of burnt bitterness. You're stuck drinking it because you need that coffee. Never fear, science is here. And by science, we mean salt.

Salt tamps down your experience of the flavor we know as "bitter." There are numerous ways that salt is surgically precise in blocking that unappealing bitter flavor. At the same time, salt turns up the volume of flavors your taste buds actually enjoy. Food Network's Alton Brown turned this into a more mainstream food hack when he popularized adding a little salt to coffee grounds before steeping the mixture into hot water.

Not everybody loved Brown's secret coffee ingredient, but the true secret might be the implementation. For example, it might seem easier to add a little shake from the salt shaker right into your freshly brewed cup of coffee. This was tested by World War II Navy veterans suffering from undrinkable coffee brewing all day on their ships. Salt helped so much, sailors carried this salt-in-your-coffee tradition back home after the war. The science behind it may be sweeter than you think.

The science of salt in coffee is sweet

Leveraging the sodium ions in salt to neutralize coffee bitterness is a better move to sweeten your coffee than sugar, which only masks bitterness. Plus, sugary, syrupy, or fat-laden additions quickly diminish coffee's health benefits. According to registered dietician Devon Peart, coffee can be very healthy — from curbing depression to protecting against cirrhosis of the liver (via Cleveland Clinic). There are also other aspects of coffee you might not know about, like its phenolic compounds. Phenols are plant-based properties that help your body protect itself against inflammation and aid your overall defenses. 

Why miss out on all that because of a bitter flavor that can be mitigated with a simple smidge of salt? Sure, the CDC warns that 90% of Americans from ages two and up generally consume too much salt, but is quick to attribute that to salt hidden in food, not the extra pinch we're talking about to save our cup of joe.

Adding salt to bitter coffee also connects us to lots of coffee lore, like one wedding ritual in Turkey. In this tradition, a bride dumps way too much salt into a cup of coffee to see if her groom can take it, thus indicating he's a great guy who understands marriage will not always be sweet. To take the bitterness out of coffee, a simple pinch will do.