I love coffee. It is the stuff of life. I cannot function a day without it. But it has one serious flaw: it never tastes as good as it smells. This was a great disappointment to me when I first tried to drink it with my fellow seventh graders in the aftermath of Saturday morning services. We thought it would turn us into grownups (just like Bar/Bat Mitzvahs were supposed to transform us into men and women). Instead, we filled our cups with creamer and a splash of coffee from the urn. More experience—and better coffee—taught me that bitterness in coffee is a feature, not a bug. And new research into the science of taste has taught us all that some people are more susceptible to bitterness than others. It is not a moral failing to dislike black coffee!
Still. What if you find yourself with a cup of coffee in an environment where there is no cream (or creamer) and sugar to be had? Food scientist Makenzie Bryson Jackson says you can use salt instead!
Back in 1997, a study was published in the journal Nature that asked participants to taste and rate the flavors of solutions made with sweet and bitter flavors; salt and bitter; and salt, sweet, and bitter. “Surprisingly,” Jackson told Well+Good, “they found that salt was much more effective in decreasing the awareness of the bitter compound than the sweet sugar solution.” Salt also enhanced the flavor of the coffee overall, which maybe shouldn’t be surprising because that’s what salt does to most foods, but somehow it’s still a surprising effect in coffee.
You have to be sparing in your use of salt, though. (Always a good idea anyway.) Jackson advises just a few grains. If you add more, you’ll risk a cup of coffee that tastes like salt, and that is a terrible thing (as I know from experience after a brunch mishap at a restaurant where the management apparently thought it would be cute to have salt in little bowls on the table with little spoons instead of in a shaker, and what the hell were they thinking???).
The Monday after a long and slothful holiday weekend is a great excuse to make a second cup of coffee, especially if you are planning to sprinkle a tiny bit of salt in it for science. Maybe it was the placebo effect, but I swear that the three or four grains of salt made it taste less bitter. I’ve been drinking coffee with sugar for so many years now, I expect a hit of sweetness with every sip, but I suppose with a little more time I can condition myself not to expect that, because science is wonderful. Or maybe it just means I’ll have to start buying more expensive beans because I won’t be able to disguise the flavor of the coffee anymore. Maybe science isn’t so wonderful after all.