Instant coffee powder looks very much like ground coffee beans, but the two are fundamentally different.
First, How Is Coffee Made?
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.
Sign up for the Cook's Insider newsletter
The latest recipes, tips, and tricks, plus behind-the-scenes stories from the Cook's Illustrated team.
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 how instant coffee powder is made. It starts by brewing a large quantity of extra-strong coffee under pressure. That 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.
That’s why espresso powder (a type of instant coffee that’s often added to baked goods) is great mixed into batters and doughs, while adding gritty coffee grounds would be terrible.
The high-pressure, high-temperature brewing process 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 third, the carbohydrates encourage and stabilize foam, which is why instant coffee can be easily whipped to create dalgona coffee or Greek frappé.