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Is Instant Coffee Real Coffee? Ask Paul

And where does it come from? Instant beans?
By

Published Nov. 9, 2022.

Short answer: Not entirely. Instant coffee powder starts out as real coffee brewed from coffee beans. Then it's transformed into a different beast.

First, How Is Regular Coffee Brewed?

About 30 percent of the weight of a coffee bean can be dissolved in hot water. That means, when the ground bean infuses with water, that soluble material—including caffeine; fruity acids; nutty carbohydrates; and brown melanoidins—starts to extract out of the bean and into the water.

Variables like time and temperature affect how much and which of the soluble compounds get extracted, which is why coffee making is an art and a science. And brewing coffee from beans leaves you with at least 70 percent insoluble spent grounds to dispose of. 

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Typical brewed coffee, the stuff we drink, is about 99 percent water, with those dissolved compounds making up the remaining 1 percent. If all the water evaporates, the dry remainder is essentially highly concentrated coffee. Just add water, and you’ll have coffee again. Not good coffee, but legitimate coffee.

How Is Instant Coffee Made?

That’s the principle by which instant coffee powder is made. It starts by rapidly brewing a large quantity of extra-strong coffee under pressure.

That concentrated liquid is then rapidly dried at low temperature to preserve as much of its flavor as possible. (Often the most delicate flavor compounds are extracted separately first, then reincorporated into the final product.) The result is dry, powdery crystals of 100 percent soluble coffee.

The high-pressure, high-temperature brewing process also pulls more carbohydrates out of the bean than classic home brewing does, which has a few consequences. 

First, by design, the presence of those extra carbs makes it easier to fully dry out the coffee into crystals, without stickiness; they are like added cornstarch, to help the powder flow freely, but they come from the bean itself. 

Second, they give instant coffee a little bit of its odd sweet flavor. And they make the drink a bit more viscous, so it tends to hang onto its foamy head when poured—a telltale sign that the cup in front of you is reconstituted.

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Does Instant Coffee Have Caffeine?

Yes. While the rapid industrial brewing process results in a concentrated brewed coffee, it can extract less caffeine than normal brewing, where the ground coffee is allowed to steep longer. For that reason, a cup of instant coffee prepared according to the package directions typically has a little bit less caffeine than a cup of home-brewed coffee you brew to taste. That said, the caffeine content of instant coffee varies from brand to brand,  and the caffeine content of home-brewed coffee varies tremendously from bean to bean and brewing method to brewing method.

Good Uses For Instant Coffee

The drying process of instant coffee makes it an inferior substitute for fresh. But it does have its uses. Its ability to dissolve without a trace makes instant coffee a great way to add a boost of coffee flavor to batters and doughs. When used as an accent, instant coffee can enhance the chocolatey taste of baked goods. And because instant coffee has those viscosity-improving carbohydrates, it also be whipped until frothy to make dalgona coffee or Greek frappé.

Finally, in case of emergency, you can always drink it.


Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

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