A Cook's Diary

Ground Coffee Versus Instant Coffee: Health, Flavor, Convenience

First, let’s make something clear. I’m not going to start acting like a clueless snob who will categorically declare that instant coffee can never taste as good as brewed coffee. It can. When you compare good quality instant coffee like Yuban Gold with badly prepared brewed coffee, oh yes, instant coffee will take the trophy—hands down.

In terms of convenience, nothing beats instant coffee. Some say it can taste as good as ground coffee, but is that really true? Does it retain the natural nutrients from coffee beans?

Second, I don’t belong to that school of thought that coffee drinking is as much a ritual as it is a boost. I drink coffee for the caffeine. A cup or two in the morning to kick my senses into gear and a cup after every meal (especially a hefty one) to help me stay alert rather than make me drowsy. If my sense of smell can additionally be stimulated with the aroma of coffee while it brews, it’s a nice plus but not a necessity.

Third, and this is related to the previous paragraph, I don’t drink coffee for “social” reasons. I don’t hang out in posh coffee shops just so I can be seen there— you know, for image purposes. And I don’t have a very kind opinion about people who declare that they can’t function in the morning without coffee but their definition of morning coffee is a cup of decaf.

So, again, I drink coffee for the caffeine. Caffeine is a drug. Therefore, coffee is my drug.

And just how do I like to take my drug?

I take my coffee with sugar and milk. Or cream.

Strong. With sugar and milk. We ditched coffee creamer a while back. Milk is better. It’s natural and it tastes better.

Instant or brewed? It didn’t use to matter so long as I could get enough caffeine into my system. Late last year, however, we made a conscious decision to strike off instant coffee from our food shopping list. Why? Read on.

Let’s talk about convenience

The biggest advantage that instant coffee has over brewed coffee is convenience. Dump a teaspoonful of instant coffee into a mug, add sugar, pour in hot water, add milk and stir.

Whereas, brewing coffee entails waiting which may last for a few to several minutes depending on what coffee brewing gadget you’re using and how much coffee you’re making.

If you travel and you’re not sure what quality of coffee will be available at your destination, bringing a small canister of good quality instant coffee is the way to go. Your supply can last you for days. You can’t bring brewed coffee like that unless you’re okay with packing your coffee maker too.

Let’s talk about coffee flavor

To make my point about instant versus non-instant clearer, let me cite as an example an episode from Netflix’s Samurai Gourmet. The episode is not about coffee. It’s about ramen but it captures the essence of instant versus non-instant so well.

Netflix's Samurai Gourmet

In Episode 2 (“The Demoness’s Ramen”), the protagonist, 60-year-old recent retiree Takeshi Kasumi, wanted to eat ramen but the popular ramen place in the neighborhood was full and the queue outside was long. He found another restaurant, one devoid of customers, and went in arguing that, sometimes, the less popular ones serve better food than the popular ones (think “hype” to better understand the context of that sentiment).

A heavily made-up woman (whose looks Takeshi thought better belonged in a bar) took and prepared his order. The shoyu ramen broth was not steaming hot, the egg was cold and the meat was dry. There was too much wakame too that the “madame” didn’t even bother to cut.

Disappointed, Takeshi went home hungry. His wife took out a packet of instant ramen, prepared it lovingly and topped the noodles with with perfectly boiled egg and finely sliced scallions. Takeshi savored the broth and noodles with an ecstatic look on his face and declared, “It’s delicious!”

I am not exactly a fan of instant ramen. But if I have to choose between instant ramen that is carefully prepared and lovingly garnished, and ramen from a ramen place where the cook doesn’t even understand that the temperature of ramen broth is crucial, I’ll take instant ramen.

My attitude with coffee is the same. Not all cups of brewed coffee are created equal. I’ve been to places where the brewed coffee tasted like the ground coffee had been brewed three times. I’ve been to places where the coffee was served lukewarm and dissolving sugar in it practically required beating rather than stirring. Only a dimwit will argue that it’s still brewed coffee and, ergo, still superior to good quality instant coffee served at the right temperature.

What nutrients does brewed coffee have that instant coffee doesn’t?

I am not a nutritionist so I can’t answer that with certainty. However, I did a little sleuthing (Google, baby!) and found sites that make the following claims:

Instant coffee has less caffeine.

Instant coffee contains twice as much acrylamide, a chemical that forms when coffee is roasted and which is potentially harmful to the nervous system.

So instant coffee isn’t so bad; why do we still prefer brewed coffee?

Two reasons.

1. Caffeine and
2. Economics

In terms of convenience, nothing beats instant coffee. Some say it can taste as good as ground coffee, but is that really true? Does it retain the natural nutrients from coffee beans?

That instant coffee contains less caffeine, I have mentioned earlier so I won’t repeat that.

Economics? While many argue that instant coffee is cheaper than brewed coffee, it is not always true. In this country, good instant coffee means imported coffee that costs an arm and a leg. Meanwhile, coffee is locally grown and if you know how to extract every drop of flavor from coffee beans, brewed coffee doesn’t come out as expensive as others make it out to be.

That said, we vote for brewed coffee.

How to extract every drop of flavor from your coffee beans

Here’s how we make brewed coffee at home.

First, we don’t buy ground coffee. We buy whole coffee beans.

In terms of convenience, nothing beats instant coffee. Some say it can taste as good as ground coffee, but is that really true? Does it retain the natural nutrients from coffee beans?

Next, I use the coffee grinder attachment of the food processor to grind the coffee. I only grind enough for a few days use and leave the rest whole. Why?

Coffee beans, like most food, lose its flavor and aroma fast when cut up. Oxidation. You can’t prevent that. While you can help minimize the loss by storing ground coffee in an airtight container and keeping the container away from sunlight and humidity, you prevent even more loss by keeping the beans whole until such time that you need to brew them.

In terms of convenience, nothing beats instant coffee. Some say it can taste as good as ground coffee, but is that really true? Does it retain the natural nutrients from coffee beans?

How coarse or fine should the grind be? That depends on what coffee maker you’re using. Drip type? One that requires steeping? Learn about your coffee maker to know how much grinding you should give your coffee beans. We have two kinds at home—an old-fashioned percolator and a French press. Which one we use depends on how many people we’re making coffee for.

In terms of convenience, nothing beats instant coffee. Some say it can taste as good as ground coffee, but is that really true? Does it retain the natural nutrients from coffee beans?

For the percolator, five pulses plus five seconds on low speed is perfect for me. But don’t take that count as a universal standard. Food processors (and even independent coffee grinders) differ in power. The more powerful ones are capable of more revolutions per fraction of second than the less powerful ones.

Want coffee recipes? Head over to the archive of coffee and coffee cocktails. Cheers!

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