We’re sure every java lover has found themselves face-to-face with a box of instant coffee granules, wondering how to make the spray- or freeze-dried coffee beans taste as good as the ones they usually filter through their coffee maker.
Making a mug of instant joe taste like a regular cup of hot coffee is daunting. But the good news is that daunting doesn’t mean impossible. With a little effort and a few handy tricks up your sleeve, you can turn a batch of just-add-water joe into something even an intense coffee snob would enjoy. Let us teach you how to make instant coffee taste better!
How is Instant Coffee Made?
Today, there are two primary means of manufacturing instant coffee: spray-drying and freeze-drying. The first two steps of the instant coffee process are the same, whether spray-dried or freeze-dried. During the first step, producers brew regular coffee grounds, and in step two, they condense the coffee to produce a thick coffee extract.
Now, this is where things get different. If the instant coffee is freeze-dried — the most popular means of making instant coffee, by the way — the coffee extract is frozen to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit until a sort of java slushie forms. The slushie is chilled to about -40 degrees until it hardens into slabs of coffee ice. Then, the workers break the coffee ice into tiny pieces and send them to a drying vacuum until they vaporize and nothing but coffee crystals are left behind.
On the other hand, spray-drying uses heat to turn the coffee extract into instant brew. Workers spray the liquid coffee extract into hot, dry air. By the time the extract droplets fall to the ground, all the water has left them; they’re just small, dehydrated pieces of instant coffee powder.
Why Does Instant Coffee Taste Bad?
The most common complaint about instant coffee is that it doesn’t taste good. But why?
First, it’s important to note that bad taste is subjective. While some people can’t stand the bitter, somewhat sour taste a cup of this stuff usually boasts, other dedicated coffee addicts can’t get enough of it. Generally, though, most serious coffee drinkers aren’t the biggest fans of anything instant for a couple of reasons:
- Subpar beans. Many instant coffee companies use low-quality robusta beans to make their products because those tend to be cheaper. However, robusta beans have an earthier, more bitter flavor profile than the arabica beans most coffee lovers prefer. Though they can provide a more powerful caffeine jolt than their arabica counterparts, they don’t taste as good.
- Loss of aroma and flavor during dehydration. The heat used to make spray-dried coffee burns all of the natural flavor notes out of the joe, leaving only sourness behind. That’s why freeze-drying is the preferred method — it saves most of the coffee’s natural flavors — but because spray-drying is less expensive, many companies sacrifice the taste of their instant beans to save a few bucks.
Can You Use Instant Coffee in a Coffee Maker?
Neither your trusty espresso machine nor drip coffee maker has ever steered you wrong, so it’s only natural to assume one of them could work some magic on your instant joe to make it taste delicious. Sorry to dash your dreams, but you should never use instant coffee in any coffee machine. Doing so will likely result in a clogged machine and an odd-smelling, horrible-tasting pile of mushy mess.
Simple Hacks for Improving Instant Coffee Taste
Now you understand how instant coffee is made and why it may taste a little disappointing compared to your favorite ground coffee. But the million-dollar question — how do you make instant coffee taste better? — remains unanswered…until now.
Buy High-Quality Coffee
Purchasing top-notch joe may seem like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised how many people subject themselves to crappy coffee just because they aren’t buying a high-quality instant product.
Make sure the instant beans you buy are freeze-dried arabica, not robusta, for maximum coffee flavor. It might mean you’re paying a slightly higher price, but we don’t think it’s worth compromising on quality. Do some research to find the best instant coffee brands out there; our buying guide makes a solid starting point.
Adjust Water-to-Coffee Ratio
Using the wrong coffee-to-water ratio is probably one of the most common mistakes people make when brewing, whether they’re using instant granules or a coffee maker. We get it — reading instructions is a drag. But the manufacturers put them there for a reason, and doing what the box suggests is usually the best way to guarantee a great-tasting cup.
If you find that the manufacturer’s instructions don’t work for you, feel free to do some experimenting based on your preferences.
Dissolve the Grounds in Cold Water
A simple trick to reduce instant coffee’s bitterness is to use cold water, not hot, during the dissolving process. For a smoother cup of coffee, dissolve the instant coffee granules in about a tablespoon of cold water before filling the rest of your mug with hot water. It’s not a cold brew, but it does the trick.
This hack works because instant coffee contains something called amylum, and when that substance makes direct contact with hot water, it hardens and creates a yucky, powdery taste. Cold water lets the coffee dissolve gently without hardening the amylum and creates a better-tasting brew.
Add Things to Your Cup
You’d be surprised the wonders one little coffee additive (or two, if you’re in the mood for a particularly dressed-up cup of joe) can do. We’re sharing some of the most common instant coffee add-ins, but, of course, you can add anything you want to your coffee drinks.
The easiest way to combat a too-bitter coffee taste is to scoop a spoonful or two of sugar into your cup. Add as little or as much as you need to make your drink palatable; there isn’t a right or wrong way to sweeten your cup.
If you don’t want to add granulated or liquid sugar to your morning joe, honey, maple syrup, stevia, agave nectar, and molasses make satisfying substitutes. They’re all higher in nutritional value than plain old sugar, too.
Flavored Coffee Syrups
A drizzle of flavored coffee syrup also makes a fine alternative to sugar in your morning cup. Plus, it puts a fun spin on the basic coffee taste. Vanilla, caramel, chocolate, hazelnut — whatever flavor syrup you’re searching for, let our list of favorites be your guide.
Now, salt won’t necessarily make your instant coffee taste amazing, but a bit of it can make a cup of the stuff drinkable, keeping you from wasting even a teaspoon of your beloved beans. Food scientist Alton Brown concluded that the sodium ions present in granulated salt alter the natural bitterness of the beans and give the java a slightly sweeter taste. You just have to be careful not to use too much salt — typically no more than a quarter of a teaspoon — or you’ll wind up with salty coffee. And trust us. You don’t want to know how awful that tastes.
A splash of milk gives the contents of your cup a nice, creamy consistency and helps neutralize the acidity that gives the joe a bitter taste. Non-dairy alternatives, like almond or oat milk, for example, do it, too.
Pouring a bit of coffee creamer into your mug does the same thing as adding milk: it cuts down the brew’s bitterness and gives the joe a rich, silky texture. Plus, creamers come in a wide variety of flavors, so you’ll have many options to choose from when you need to upgrade the taste of your instant coffee.
Is Instant Coffee Better With Milk or Water?
This seems like a good time to mention that it’s not uncommon to find instant coffee lovers dissolving the dehydrated granules into warm milk instead of hot water. But does that make it taste better?
The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Using milk makes a weaker beverage than if you had made it with hot water. To some, that’s preferable, as instant joe has a reputation for having an overwhelmingly bitter or sour taste. However, some people genuinely like the strength of black coffee made with instant grounds, and they aren’t likely to be satisfied by bringing milk into the mix.
Improve Your Instant Brew
We’ll be honest: the tips above are unlikely to make your instant grounds taste like the actual coffee drinks you buy at your favorite local coffee shops. However, they do a pretty good job at making the unpleasant taste of the often-cheap coffee beans used to make instant joe more enjoyable.
It’s easy to turn your nose up at the idea of instant coffee, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, especially with one or two taste-improving hacks.
Happy (Instant) Caffeinating!