What Does Salt Add to a Margarita?

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Mary Katherine Morris Photography

It doesn’t just look cool on your glass! Salt makes the sweet and sour flavors of a margarita pop. Even a little bit of salt suppresses bitterness, which in turn makes sweetness and sourness seem more intense. However, calling salt a flavor enhancer can be misleading – no clear physiological connection between salt and universal flavor enhancement has been found.

What we do know is that salt seems to boost certain basic tastes by suppressing others. Adding even a pinch of salt to a mixture tamps down its bitterness. Since that bitterness would otherwise be counteracting the drink's sweetness, adding salt enhances the perception of sweet flavors.

On a chemical level, research shows that the sodium ion in the sodium chloride molecule (NaCl) is responsible for dampening bitterness. Interestingly, the reverse is not true - when bitter compounds are added to salty ones, the level of saltiness does not noticeably change.

Furthermore, salt seems to intensify our perception of cocktails’ aromas, making their flavors seem more powerful. Additionally, even tiny amounts of salt increase the flow of saliva, which makes the drinks feel slightly richer and thicker.

Salt is effective at busting bitterness even if it’s present in such small concentrations that you can’t tell it’s there. At these levels, the ingredient has a bonus effect: enhancing sourness. Many bartenders have begun adding a few drops of saline solution to citrusy drinks to enhance or brighten the flavor. But be careful – add too much and the cocktail’s acidity will also be suppressed.

For the beloved margarita, adding a small amount of salt screens out the slight bitterness of the Cointreau or triple sec. At the same time, it also heightens the taste of the lime juice and softens the tequila’s bite.

Hit The Lab

Cocktail history can be contentious, and the margarita’s back story and recipe are no exception. Alhough it first appeared on the cocktail scene in the 1940s, tequila drinks weren’t popular until the 1970s. Since then, hundreds of recipes and variations of the margarita have been published or shaken up in bars around the world. Some have a salted rim, while others call for a few drops of a saline solution. To make a weak saline solution, dissolve one part salt in four parts hot water. Let cool and experiment.

Start small; one or two drops may be enough to produce the desired effect. For a saltier taste, add additional drops until the drink is to your taste.

Margarita

1.5 oz tequila
1 oz Cointreau or triple sec
.75 oz lime juice
.25-.5 oz simple syrup (to taste)

Mix ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously for 15 - 20 seconds, and strain into a chilled glass. If you prefer, salt the rim of the glass before mixing the cocktail or experiment with adding drops of saline solution.

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November 7, 2013 - 5:00pm
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