Ground Coffee vs Instant: Complete Guide
Since its debut in the late 1800s, instant coffee went from an army's saving grace to a black mark on the industry and back again. It's been called unhealthy, carcinogenic swill, yet half of the global bean production is dedicated to producing instant coffee. And the demand has been on the rise since the early 2000s despite the growing popularity of gourmet beans and extra complicated barista-made drinks.
I invite you to take a look at what sets instant coffee apart from traditional ground beans to decide once and for all if it's worth the money and the place in your pantry.
Instant vs Ground Coffee: 6 Core Differences
Before we dive headfirst into the specifics, here's a quick overview of the core differentiators for those too impatient to get through my java-related ramblings:
- Brewing. Instant coffee doesn't need any brewing; adding hot water and mixing in sugar and milk is everything you need to do. Ground coffee calls for brewing, be it in a pour-over pot, French press, or espresso machine.
- Coffee grind. Instant coffee looks like fine powder or coarse crystals that dissolve in water without leaving a trace. Ground coffee can land anywhere from extra fine to extra coarse on the coarseness scale, depending on your preferred brewing method.
- Coffee machine. You don't need any special equipment aside from a kettle to make a cup of instant coffee, while ground beans can be brewed using various devices, manual and electric. The cheapest are under $50, while the most expensive ones cost into the mid four figures.
- Caffeine per cup. Mayo Clinic lists freshly brewed coffee at 96 mg per 8-ounce serving, while the same amount of instant coffee only holds 62 mg of caffeine.
- Acidity. If you're worried about GERD and other unpleasant consequences, you should keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, whether you choose instant or ground coffee.
- Flavor profile. Instant java is mellow and smooth, with a mild-mannered aftertaste and no prominent bitterness or acidity. Ground coffee flavor hinges on the beans' origin, the roasting profile, and the brewing method. Coffee aficionados can enjoy the nuanced flavor and aroma by choosing the right single-origin bean or blend.
Real Ground Coffee vs Instant: Brewing Process
I won't call making a cup of instant coffee brewing, as it doesn't require any actual brewing. You take a cup, add the crystals in, pour hot water over those and stir until there's no residue on the bottom. Add sugar, milk, or cream if necessary. That's all it takes.
Still, there are a few tricks to making instant coffee more palatable. One is increasing the coffee-to-water ratio, meaning add an extra teaspoon to your cuppa before pouring water. Just don't go overboard, as your java may turn too bitter. Another way to improve the instant coffee experience is by adding natural flavor enhancers, like a pinch of ground cinnamon or a dash of vanilla extract. Both are safe and healthy and make for great additions that don't increase the calorie count.
Brewing ground coffee is an art form, and World Coffee Championships are a testament to that. You can splurge on an espresso machine or settle for a good-old Mr.Coffee drip machine, elevate your kitchen style with an elegant Chemex or go with a practical French press. Considering the variety of brewing methods, I can't provide a one-size-fits-all tutorial. Still, I can suggest a couple of useful tips that enhance every brewing technique:
- Match the grind setting to your brewing method. Turkish coffee calls for the extra fine grounds, espresso needs the fine setting, while drip machines and pour over kits work best with medium-ground beans. French press and cold brew are suited for using coarsely ground beans.
- Let the beans bloom before brewing. It's as simple as pouring a bit of hot water over the grounds and waiting 30 seconds for the coffee to start releasing the flavor and aroma. Then you can add the rest of the water and continue brewing as usual.
- Find the right extraction time for every bean. If you try to hasten the process, you'll end up with an under-extracted sour drink. And keeping the beans in contact with hot water too long causes over-extraction and a bitter brew. You should aim to find the sweet spot for every brewing method and bean between these two extreme states.
I know it may sound unnecessarily complicated and confusing, but if you give this a try, you will be pleasantly surprised by the difference a few simple tweaks can make.
Ground Coffee vs Instant Coffee: Taste
When it comes to the flavor of whole-bean or ground coffee, you should pay attention to the variety (Arabica or Robusta), bean origin, and roasting to choose the best brewing method. For instance, dark-roasted Arabica and Robusta blends have been an espresso staple for over a century. Medium roast is better suited to drip and pour-over brewing. Single-origin beans are best enjoyed in a French press or espresso to emphasize their nuanced flavor that can be mellowed out by a drip machine.
The intensity of the ground coffee flavor depends on the bean-to-water ratio you use, as well as the java freshness. For best taste, I recommend you buy whole bean coffee and grind it before brewing. And don't forget to store your java in an airtight container far from heat and sunlight. Any kitchen cabinet will do, and a fridge isn't the best option for preserving flavor, despite what the Internet has led you to believe.
Regardless of your stance on the conflict of instant coffee vs ground coffee, the same factors impact flavor for both. However, as instant java is pre-brewed, many oils, sugars, and other compounds that make up the aroma and flavor of the drink get lost in dehydration. Even if the manufacturers work on building the palette back after dehydration, instant coffee will never taste the same as ground coffee. So don't expect an instant cuppa to be as intense or flavorful as espresso. It will likely taste similar to drip or pour-over java, medium-bodied, well-mannered, with just a hint of pleasant acidity and bitterness to make things exciting.
Instant vs Ground Coffee: Nutrition
Considering both ground and instant java comprise the same basic components, meaning beans and coffee, their nutritional value is largely the same. For example, a cup of instant coffee is around 5 calories, the same as a fresh brew (drip or espresso).
So why do we believe instant coffee is bad for us?
It comes down to the times when instant coffee was so bitter, you couldn't drink it black. And adding a couple of teaspoons of sugar along with cream or milk can quickly raise the caloric value of your drink to 100 or 150 kcal. While one cuppa won't affect your weight and health much, drinking three or four cups per day will likely cause fast weight gain and bring along unpleasant side effects of increased sugar consumption. Remember you'll encounter the same consequences if you indulge in too many sugary Starbucks concoctions, even if they use espresso instead of instant coffee.
Instant Coffee vs Ground Coffee: Caffeine
The equal caloric value doesn't mean the composition of two java types is the same. As we've established, plenty of useful chemicals, including caffeine, are lost in the transition from freshly brewed coffee into instant crystals. That's why instant java only holds 62 mg of caffeine while freshly brewed cuppa boasts 96 mg per 8-ounce serving.
I'm not sure a lower caffeine content is a downside, to be honest. For one, it means you can drink two or three cups of instant java without getting those unpleasant jitters and anxiety pangs you would get after three regular coffees. Besides, an espresso shot (and all drinks based on it) hold around the same amount of caffeine as an instant coffee–merely 64 mg. Add a bit of hot water to make it into an Americano, and you get the same caffeine content in an 8-ounce cuppa.
Ground Coffee vs Instant: Cost
The prices range dramatically for both types of coffee. You can go with the cheapest store brand that's under $5 for a 12 to 16-ounce pack or splurge on Kona coffee that's over $50 for half a pound. And that's your regular coffee. Exclusive varieties (think poop coffee) can cost over $200 per pound.
For ground coffee, the price tag includes the cost of the beans, roasting, grinding, packaging, and shipping. Brand name and marketing can drive up the price, though the beans' origin and processing are usually a more weighty factor.
The downside to using ground coffee is the need to invest in brewing hardware. If you opt for a French press or a pour-over kit, you'll need to spend an extra $50, while electric coffee makers are worth $100 and more. Espresso machines are the most expensive of the bunch, with prices starting at $400 for medium-quality models. And if you decide to go the whole-bean route, you'll also need a burr grinder. Overall, coffee hardware expenses can reach mid four figures. But that's nothing compared to the money you save on taking regular trips to a coffee shop.
When it comes to comparing the price of instant coffee vs ground coffee, the former has always been dirt-cheap. Made of last year's crop of Robusta, it lacked flavor and made up for it with overwhelming bitterness. For under $5 a bag, it was a deal many caffeine addicts were willing to take.
However, the instant coffee varieties have become much more palatable in recent years. Made of fresh, organically grown Brazilian or Colombian Arabica, instant java tastes better than ever, though the prices have gone up too. On average, it's still cheaper than gourmet whole-bean or ground coffee, but the gap is closing. Expect to pay $12 to $15 per pound of instant coffee.
While that might seem too extreme for instant java, remember you don't need any extra kitchenware to make it. If you have a pot or a kettle, you're all set for enjoying your coffee. Zero upfront investment makes it a must-have for every pantry, especially if you're at the onset of your java discovery journey.
We've come to the resolution of our ground coffee vs instant coffee deep dive.
I admit I used to turn my nose up at those who swear by instant coffee because I thought it was a cheap fake and all-around inferior to whole bean java. After some research, navel-gazing, and taste-testing, I have to concede my mistake. While many brands are truly horrible, a new breed of instant coffee producers is on the rise, offering the same delicious aroma and flavor without all the fuss of brewing. Considering instant and ground coffee are equally healthy, I now stock my pantry with a couple of jars of instant java. It's my dirty little secret and an insurance policy for occasions I have no time or energy to go full barista.
I won't try to convince you to switch to instant. I'm just saying, don't beat it till you try it. After all, we all have the right to enjoy coffee in whatever form it comes easiest, right?
Fresh Ground Coffee vs Instant Coffee: Which Is Better for Your Health?Both varieties have nearly equal amounts of caffeine and antioxidants, the two types of chemicals that have the most profound impact on your health. Therefore, instant and ground coffee are equally healthy when used in moderation.
Is Instant or Ground Coffee Cheaper?Box-store instant coffee is usually extremely cheap, though high-quality organic instant brands are now sold at around $15 per pound, raising the price tags to rival whole-bean and ground coffee.
Can I Use Ground Coffee Instead of Instant?You can steep the grounds in hot water, but you won't like the result (it will taste weak and sour or bitter). If you're after speed and convenience, look into buying a Keurig or Nespresso machine, and if you like the no-fuss brewing, consider a French press or a pour-over kit, like Hario V60.