Alton Brown's Instant Coffee Swap Adds Dimensions Of Flavor

An Alton Brown recipe has a way of masquerading as deceptively ordinary. One look at the ingredient list, however, and you'll know that it is anything but. Brown's creamy scrambled eggs feature a dash of mayo, a pinch of salt goes into his coffee, his overnight oats are laced with equal parts of brown rice, and anything fried in the "Good Eats" host's kitchen is often dusted with a generous sprinkle of sumac. So, how could dalgona coffee ever be the simple mixture of instant coffee powder, sugar, and hot water in his kitchen?

Brown's recipe for a dalgona coffee comes from his "Pantry Raid" series on YouTube, which aimed to inspire quarantine cooking, and it features all the classics barring one crucial ingredient. Instead of using instant coffee powder, Brown swaps it for a spoonful of instant espresso, and yes, they are two different things. Using 12 grams of instant espresso for 60 grams of water, Brown says that this coffee swap "has a heck of a lot more flavor than instant coffee does," which, it turns out, can be a game changer for more than just dalgona coffee but amps up flavor for any recipe featuring instant coffee.

Instant coffee powder vs. instant espresso

Much like a jar of instant coffee, instant espresso too is made from brewed coffee that is dehydrated until all its water is removed and only small granules remain, which melt instantly in hot liquid. A key difference between the two powders is that while most instant coffees are made from robusta beans, instant espresso tends to come from arabica beans. This is what affects their flavors: Where robusta beans give instant coffees a sour, bitter, and somewhat harsh flavor, arabica beans leave behind a smoother taste with a hint of sweetness. Just note that robusta beans tend to have more caffeine than arabica.

Instant espresso also has a reputation for having a bolder flavor — which may be why Brown prefers it over instant coffee in his dalgona. Where instant coffee can make mugs if not pots of java, instant espresso replicates a small cup of espresso pulled from a machine. This gives instant espresso a more concentrated, intense, and dark flavor than the lingering sharpness of instant coffee. To put it simply, instant espresso packs the punch of a small cup of espresso in a dalgona coffee.

However, if the point of instant espresso is simply that it mimics the strong flavor of a freshly pulled espresso in dalgona coffee, you may wonder: Why not use brewed espresso in the first place? Well, Brown explains that liquid espresso simply wouldn't yield the same fluffy and smooth dalgona coffee as granules of powdered coffee would. Instant espresso makes up for the taste of a shot of espresso without compromising on the airy texture of whipped coffee.

How to swap instant coffee powder with instant espresso

While Brown primarily uses this instant coffee swap to mimic the richness of brewed espresso in his dalgona coffee, you don't have to stop just there. Instant coffee can be swapped with instant espresso in just about any recipe. A few spoons of it can bring the rich flavor of espresso to any beverage without the need to own an espresso machine or have to brew fresh espresso every time. The granulated coffee is excellent in dry mixes like spice rubs for meats and small quantities of it can even elevate chocolate-based recipes better than instant coffee can, without making it taste overtly like coffee — think chocolate cakes, brownies, and hot cocoa. Even the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten, uses espresso powder in her chocolate cake recipe.

One thing to keep in mind is that instant espresso has a considerably stronger flavor, so when you're using it as a substitute, you'll need to lower its quantity. In general, you should use a 2:1 ratio to substitute instant coffee with instant espresso. For example, if a recipe calls for two tablespoons of instant coffee, you'll only need one tablespoon of instant espresso to add its distinctly rich flavor to the dish or drink. Once you get the hang of the golden ratio, you will be able to use this instant coffee swap beyond just Brown's dalgona coffee recipe!