Salt in Coffee? Not in My Cup!

When Good Eats’ host Alton Brown did a coffee segment some years back I was surprised at how casual the man who claims to be food’s OCD poster child was about preparing a beverage I know to be among the most finicky and demanding of cooking arts. If his general demeanor convinced me that Mr Brown is not a devout coffee enthusiast, his advice that his special sauce for getting the best coffee taste was adding salt to the grounds sealed it. I was genuinely despondent over the segment. For one thing, it showed he either never saw or wasn’t convinced by my own appearances on Food where I attempted to evangelize good brewing techniques and attentiveness to the process. Second, I was horrified to see him suggest adding salt.

To Salt or No To...

To Salt or Not

Salt is, according to food medical sages, a slow poison to health. I’m a philosopher when it comes to such warnings. I think a lot of living is eating and, after my early years as a strict food puritan, I came to take a common sense mix of good living and reasonable caution. I don’t smoke or drink heavily. I preach moderation in all things, including salt. By my reckoning a key to long life is learning not to be a health fanatic as worry appears to kill as quickly as the occasional wrong ingredient. So my objection to salt in coffee is not based upon health issues. I acknowledge that salt is not a killer in the amounts advised by Brown.

I’ve also heard food industry critics challenge Brown using the conflict of interest argument. They claim the Brown is funded by a major salt company and thus his views are tainted by his paycheck. Again, I say nay. I think Brown appears to me to be sincere in his beliefs. If I’ve learned one thing in writing about coffee, you’re going to find funding from those you generally agree with and who recognize that what you’re saying is what they want to help spread around. It isn’t always a conflict. It is more often the other way around. The people who want to fund you like you because you both generally agree. I think Brown likes salt and the salt companies simply know this, like this and make their investments accordingly. So, my objection has nothing to do with an impropriety.

I think Alton Brown is wrong, that’s all. Oh, is he right that adding salt to coffee affects the flavor? Yes, he is. But why? Salt is a taste desensitizer. It is roughly the same thing as advising eyeglass wearers to not clean their glasses before viewing their cable TV because it will help cover the artifacts present in video downloads. It’s actually a pretty fair analogy because salt softens the harshness in coffee – coffee that’s poorly brewed that is. Oh yes, it’s also coffee that’s low quality. This is what irks me. Brown, who counsels people to spend extra money and time seeking high quality seafood, meat and vegetables, suddenly offers coffee shortcuts to help hide the defects in inferior beans, and mistakes inherent in poor brewing practices and faulty equipment. Suddenly, the man who’s taught you to cook dinner as if you’re a chef in the most expensive Paris restaurant, is instructing you to brew coffee in a World War II-era Soviet worker’s kitchen. He’s doing all this during an age of comparative coffee bean greatness. I’m befuddled.

Now if I may move upwards from scolding Rachel Ray’s predecessor for a moment, let’s talk about what exactly salt accomplishes in brewing. Salt is a flavor de-hancer. When you go to the supermarket on a Saturday and the cute person handing out tiny wine samples offers you a cube of cheese to accompany it, it is to help the wine by cutting the harshness of a relatively young, inexpensive wine. No wine expert would consider having cheese before or during a wine tasting. More important no one whose spent a hundred dollars or more on a bottle would want to risk destroying their tongues ability to savor that extra fragrance and taste nuances they’ve paid top dollar for. If they do, I can help them save money.

Cheese is called “the winemaker’s friend” precisely because it deadens your taste buds. It may not hurt your experience, but at least know you are like the wealth rock star who learns from a former starlet’s autobiography that he bedded her down. He has no memory of the experience but it must have been wonderful. To me that’s a waste.

Salt does not heighten the flavor of most foods, but limits your ability to taste them. Once you learn this, you are likely to either save money by buying cheaper foods knowing you can reduce the off tastes, or you can begin to really savor them by reducing the salt and allowing your taste buds to really focus on their various flavor essences and aromas.

Ironically, in an age when coffee snobs smirk at seeing their social inferiors adding a dollop of cream to their cups, cream, especially the richer, fattier varieties, can arguably be called flavor enhancers rather than taste deadeners. The challenge here is that the corporate dairies customarily add sodium to cream, probably due to the assumption that a majority of their customers buy poor coffee and don’t know how to brew it.

I urge you to buy direct trade coffees grown by farmers known to your roaster, and brew those coffees within fourteen days of roasting, using the practices I’ve spent years learning and spreading. If you do all this right, you will end up with some of the most exotic and pleasurable aromas and flavors known to man. If you still want to sweeten or enrich them with sugar or cream, be my guest.

But I urge you with equal passion to spare the salt.

Hario V60: Reinventing Manual Drip or Overpriced Geek Gear?

There is hip and there is hip. The Hario V60 is definitely what the doctor ordered for the new slow coffee movement, that is brewed coffee done by hand, one cup at a time. I heard some marketing guru state the other day that the single-cup coffee market was going to be big. Really? That would have been big news a few years ago. Frankly, I’ve been using one-cup brewers for a dozen years, but I’m not claiming to be psychic.

Recession Chic: You already own a cup, half the coffeemaker.

They are just what the doctor ordered for upscale expensive beans, and my desire to drink a brewed cup par excellence. Manual drip brewing is a superb extraction method. Realize that brewing 10 cups at a time is difficult for drip because it takes so long for hot water to get hot, and get through the grounds without over-extracting and becoming bitter. One cup? No problem.

Let’s look at what’s different about the Hario and why it’s getting such a buzz.

Brewer – the power of this brewer is the bottom, where the coffee exits. Usually it’s a tiny hole. This allows the brewer to regulate the water to help control how long the water is in contact with the grounds. If the water goes through too fast, you just get hot water. If it’s too slow, you get bitter coffee. The Hario hole is so big, it hardly controls the flow at all. This allows you to grind super fine and that is mostly a good thing. The Hario presumes you will grind your own coffee. If you use preground drip grind, it the water will likely run through too fast. The key to grinding is to grind fine enough to slow the drip, ending up with between four and six minutes contact between the water and grounds. In this way, it is similar to the Chemex, which also has a large gap at the filter bottom.

Negligee-thin filter

The filter is an extension of the philosophy of the exit hole. The filter appears designed to encourage flow, not hold it back. Again, this will encourage you to grind fine. The filter paper is designed to be practically transparent, quite different from Chemex’s, which seems thicker and slower in comparison.

Grind – so what grind you should use? I said between 4 and 6 minutes is the ideal contact time. But, why such a large spread? Well, this allows for your personal taste, but also when you grind finer for drip, there’s a double effect. The finer grind slows the flow, but it also increases contact area between the water and grounds, so trial and error is necessary. I found when brewing four cups, which this brewer is capable of, I ground slightly coarser, still a fine grind, but just a bit less fine, so that my entire batch was ready in six minutes. When I only needed to brew one cup, I ground superfine, but it still took less time because there was less water to run through the grounds, so I had to grind very fine, almost a powder, and due to the increased ground surface exposed to hot water, I got the same strength in about four minutes. Is that clear? I hope so.

Oversize Hario coffee exit means use fine grind.

The Hario has these swirling fins inside. One colleague of mine was just overwhelmed with this brilliance of this innovation. I must just be different, but I fail to see how important these are. They add a nice visual design touch, but I seriously doubt if they really encourage a specific flow in any significant way.

The Hario V60 is available in plastic, glass and ceramic versions. I tested the least expensive plastic version. I would expect the ceramic version to be allow the water to cool fastest, and glass perhaps slowest, but I’d reckon the water travels through the grounds so quickly that it won’t be an issue.

Nice brewing view of first pour. Note channels peeking through filter.

Here’s my method: Boil some good tasting water. Place one 10gram scoop of coffee per 6 ounce cup. I used Counter Culture’s Peruvian Valle de Santuario for my tests. Grind fine, finer than for auto drip, but definitely not espresso grind. As grind is so important to this brewer’s performance, expect to do some futzing to get the taste you like. Also expect to alter your grind if you change the batch brew volume. For four cups, I weighed 40 grams coffee, and backed off to almost an auto-drip grind. Then the contact time between grounds and water was just shy of 6 minutes. This particular coffee has vanilla, fig and chocolate notes in it and the Hario brought out all the noble acidity and richness I could ask for. I suspect the filter paper webbing has a lot to do with the extraordinary success of the Hario V60. The filter is the closest to a glass or fine mesh filter with all the flavor and oil you could ask for, yet absolutely no sediment.

The Hario rinses clean, but the plastic version I tested is not dishwasher safe!

The Hario V60 is a fine brewer, far from being overpriced and it is not just geek gear. If you want jewelry or high end kitchenware, you can buy a glass or ceramic model. It does not displace either the Melitta cone nor Chemex, but it offers a fun and good tasting option to manual brewing, and places a healthy emphasis on grinding fine, rather than counting on the exit hole or filter to regulate contact time. With its innovative filter paper that offers the best in flavor transparency, the Hario V60 is a winner.

Highly recommended.

©2010 Kevin Sinnott All rights reserved.

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