How to Make Bad Coffee Taste Better

You don't have to suffer through a bad cup of morning coffee.

Most people would probably assume I make great coffee at home. I work at Food & Wine, I care about things like garnishing my scrambled eggs in a cute way, and I deeply appreciate a good cocktail (or mocktail). Still, when it comes to my at-home coffee situation, the standards are  floor-level. My roommate and I have been brewing our daily coffee in an ancient Mr. Coffee machine for the past four years — the coffee pot actually came with the first apartment we got together, so its age is undetermined, and someone clearly didn’t care enough to take it when they moved out. It also doesn’t help that we’re reluctant to buy anything but the cheapest coffee beans available at the grocery store. 

Even if you happen to have a coffee scale and Chemex at home, odds are at some point you’ll end up in an office, great aunt’s house, hotel room, or somewhere else with mediocre  coffee — and that’s when you’ll be grateful for these tips on how to make it taste better.

What is an Americano coffee

Matt Taylor-Gross / Food Styling by Lucy Simon

Add a pinch of cinnamon (or another spice) to your pot

Okay, don’t literally add the cinnamon to the pot — you want to add your spices to the coffee grounds before you brew. This is an easy way to make your coffee more aromatic, flavorful, and cozy-feeling; it’s one of my favorite tricks in the wintertime. Any warm baking spices will work, such as nutmeg, star anise, cloves, or cardamom (the latter is especially good), but I’m more likely to have ground cinnamon on hand than anything else. Simply add a pinch or two of the ground spice to the grinds in your coffee filter, give it a stir to evenly distribute things, and brew as normal.

Make a little milk froth

Want to feel like you just went through the drive-thru at Starbucks, without the $6 hole in your pocket ?Add some foamy milk to your cup of joe, and you’ll instantly feel a little fancier. Milk will hold bubbles (as in, it’ll become foamy) when it’s warm –– so, to create a little layer of froth for your coffee, just pour a little milk into a sealable container, like a jar or tupperware. This will work slightly better with a dairy milk, but non-dairy alternatives will hold some bubbles too. Microwave it until thoroughly warm, but not scalding hot. Then add the appropriate lid, and shake the container vigorously for about thirty seconds. The result should be some frothy milk that will make it feel like you’re drinking a cappuccino.

Turn your coffee into a mocha

The obvious answer to making bad coffee taste better is to simply add more sugar, and there’s no way better to do that than by stirring a packet of hot chocolate mix into your mug. This is basically a cheat code for making a mocha at home, and the combination of sugar and milk powder is really great at masking overly bitter coffee. Make sure you use a cocoa mix that’s meant to be dissolved in water, like Swiss Miss. One of the biggest benefits of this hack is that it doesn’t require intervention before the coffee is brewed — so if your mother-in-law already started the pot, you can still save your own cup.

Sprinkle in some salt

According to the rules of science — which I know to be true, although I don’t really know why — either salt or sugar can help offset and cut bitter flavors. (A fun way to test this is by trying a leaf of radicchio without seasoning, then with salt, with honey, and with both salt and honey. But I digress.) Sprinkle a small amount of salt — think just half of a pinch — into your coffee grounds before brewing to reduce excess sharpness and acidity.

Use that random orange in your fridge

Coffee often has some chocolate notes to it, which pair especially nicely with citrus. If you don’t believe me, just ask, like, every pastry chef ever. Zest whatever citrus fruit you have in your fridge (I’d recommend using something you’d be willing to eat plain, like an orange or grapefruit, but not a lemon), and add about a teaspoon of the zested peel to your coffee grounds. Similar to what you’d do when adding cinnamon or another spice, make sure you stir the zest in to get it evenly distributed throughout the coffee.

While I happen to have a drip coffee pot, these tips would work for most at-home coffee brewing techniques. Feel free to try them out with your French press, Moka pot, or pour over; simply adjust the quantity of cinnamon, orange zest, or whichever addition you’re using to suit the amount of coffee you’re brewing. If you’re only crafting one or two cups, you’ll need a lot less salt than if you’re making an entire pot. And, please, do not add an entire packet of hot chocolate to your single serving of espresso. 

So go forth and buy the cheapest coffee beans your grocery store offers. Be like me and  avoid purchasing a state-of-the-art coffee machine at all costs, and hack your way into a better cup of coffee.

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