dalgona coffee foam from top

Why Dalgona (Whipped) Coffee is so Foamy

Trends, and especially those on social media, are short-lived. They’ve often passed well before I even noticed them. I have one of our readers to thank for discovering the Dalgona coffee trend in spring 2020. This creamy, airy coffee drink is made with just water, instant coffee, and sugar.

Our reader wanted to know, why does it work? How does it get so foamy? And, why does it only work with instant coffee?

My curiosity was aroused. I made a range of Dalgona coffee drinks, probably long after the trend had reached its peak. And have some explanations for you as to how and why dalgona coffee can be so light and foamy. Who knows, maybe it becomes trendy again at some point?

What is Dalgona coffee?

Even though Dalgona coffee was a sudden trend, it wasn’t a new drink. It seems to be a South Korean interpretation of a whipped coffee drink that has been around for a while. There are plenty of pe-2020 recipes for whipped instant coffee, beaten coffee, or Indian coffee, which are all the same thing.

So where does the name Dalgona come from? Dalgona is a Korean candy, made by caramelizing sugar and mixing in baking soda. It is quite similar to honeycomb, but is flatter, because of a lower amount of baking soda. Dalgona candy has a light brown cream color. Dalgona coffee has too. Hence the association.

dalgona coffee with milk in glass
Dalgona coffee: a coffee foam, scooped on top of a glass of milk.

How to make Dalgona coffee

Making a Dalgona coffee is surprisingly easy, especially if you have access to an electric mixer.

Mix together instant coffee, sugar, and water in the right ratios. Whisk it, by hand, or with an electric mixer. After enough time, about 2 minutes with an electric mixer, up to 20 minutes if doing by hand, you’ll get a light and airy coffee. The foam is sweet and has a strong coffee flavor.

Most people scoop the foam on top of a glass of milk. Ready to be enjoyed.

Making a good Dalgona coffee is all about the foam. So let’s have a closer look at how that works. And, let’s have a look at why we need to use instant coffee.

Making a stable foam

Dalgona coffee is a great example of a light and airy foam in food. Foams’ light and airy texture make for quite a special eating experience. But, they’re also notoriously unstable and challenging to make. Dalgona coffee collapses over time, just like whipped cream or an unbaked meringue would. To make a sufficiently stable foam you have to achieve three things:

  1. You need to incorporate air into your mix; intense whisking can do that
  2. Something then needs to hold on to that air. If you’ve ever tried to whisk pure water. You’ll know what that means, no matter how hard you whisk air bubbles will disappear almost immediately from water.
  3. Even after you’ve managed to create all those tiny air bubbles in your foam, you then need to ensure they don’t dissipate too quickly.

Meringues, whipped cream, as well as a loaf of bread are all other examples of foam. Foams are made up of gas (e.g. air) trapped within a liquid or a solid. Read all about the science of foams here.

Foaming instant coffee

Whereas you can’t make a foam out of pure water, you can make a foam of an instant coffee + water mixture.

Just whisk water and instant coffee in a weight ratio of 5:1 (e.g. 30g of water with 5 grams of instant coffee) and you’ll get a very light and airy foam (see photo below).

Time lapse of whipped instant coffee with water (1:5) without any sugar. This foam isn’t stable over time, it collapses quite rapidly.

Unfortunately, as you can see, the foam isn’t very stable. You’ve successfully completed step 2: making a foam. But, you’re failing step 3: maintaining the form. In a matter of minutes the foam has shrunk considerably. Half an hour later the foam you can see that a lot of the liquid has sunk back down to the bottom. Only a meager bit of foam is left on top.

Why can you make a foam out of instant coffee?

So, why can you foam instant coffee so much better than pure water?

Luckily, scientists have been studying coffee foams, especially those on espresso, for years. One of the (many) mechanisms that help to create a foam out of (instant) coffee is the coffee itself.

Coffee contains a small amount of proteins, fats, and some larger polysaccharides. It has been shown that all these molecules can contribute to creating a more stable foam. Even caffeine might play a minor role. They do so by serving as surfactants.

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Surfactants can help form foams

Foams can be stabilized by surfactants, which are surface-active agents.

Remember that a foam such as the one in Dalgona coffee, consists of a lot of small air bubbles dispersed within a liquid. These air bubbles will want to find each other and merge together. As a result, the air bubbles grow and it becomes easier for them to escape. You could see that on the photo above of whipped instant coffee.

Surfactants can stabilize a foam by sitting on the interface between the gas and liquid. They make it less attractive and easy to air bubbles to find each other and merge. As a result, it is easier to form small stable bubbles.

The surfactants in coffee are strong enough to help create a foam. However, they’re not strong enough to stabilize the foam over time. Once you stop whisking, the foam will slowly collapse.

Surfactants aren’t unique to coffee, they occur in a lot of other foods. A common example would be egg whites, which can be used to make very stable foams: meringue.

dalgona coffee foam from top

Sugar stabilizes the foam

This is where the role of sugar in Dalgona coffee comes in.

Yes, you can make a foam from just instant coffee and water. However, it doesn’t look that luscious, nor is it very stable. If you want that thicker, smooth, more stable Dalgona coffee, you need sugar.

By increasing the viscosity

Sugar dissolves in water. In doing so, it increases the viscosity of the liquid, it becomes more syrupy, thicker. This makes it harder for bubbles to merge. And, it also makes it harder for the liquid to move down and for the bubbles to move up. As a result, the foam is a lot more stable. The role is very similar to that of sugar in an egg white meringue.

Enabling a way fluffier and bigger foam!

Sugar also increases the volume of the foam of a Dalgona coffee. Of course, since you’re adding more ingredients, you have a bigger overall mass. But, it’s not just that.

In a typical Dalgona coffee, only 1/3 of the overall mass may consist of sugar. Nevertheless, if you look at the photo below, adding sugar can easily double, if not triple the volume of a Dalgona foam!

Whipped instant coffee (6g coffee powder + 30g water) without sugar (left), with 20g of sugar (right).

Why Dalgona coffee has to be made with instant coffee

Almost all Dalgona coffee recipes stretch the fact that is has to be made with instant coffee. Regular coffee won’t do. But why? It’s all about concentrations.

Instant coffee granules

What is instant coffee?

Keep in mind that instant coffee is dried coffee.

To make instant coffee manufacturers start by roasting, and grinding coffee beans. Next, they extract the coffee flavor from those beans. Aka, they make liquid coffee, like you would at home, but on a very large scale.

Next, they dry the coffee using special drying processes. Since the majority of coffee, well over 90% is made of water, you will only be left with a small amount of powder. Along the way, they process the powder in such a way – using a technique called agglomeration – to ensure it dissolves rapidly, even in cold water.

The benefit: concentrating those surfactants

So, instant coffee is dried coffee. And the advantage of using dried coffee is that you can determine the concentration of that coffee. You can add a little water, or a lot. You don’t have this wide degree of flexibility when making ‘regular’ coffee.

To make a ‘normal’ cup of coffee using instant coffee you may need about 1 tsp of instant coffee (which is only about 1 gram) 250ml of water.

For making Dalgona though, you may use a whopping 6g of instant coffee in just 30 ml of water. That’s at least 5 times the amount of coffee, in just 1/8th the amount of water.

By using such a high concentration of coffee, you also have a high concentration of surfactants. It’s why you can foam this super-concentrated instant coffee, but why you can’t foam your regular coffee. There aren’t enough surfactants to stabilize all those necessary air bubbles.

instant coffee granules
Some instant coffee is sold as bigger granules, such as this one. The principle is still the same.

Can you make Dalgona without instant coffee?

Making Dalgona with strong espresso

You might be wondering whether you can just make a Dalgona with a very strong espresso. One with only a small amount of moisture, but a large amount of powder. Unfortunately, by the nature of the coffee-making process, you can’t concentrate it enough. Water has to pour through the ground coffee and it just can’t take along as many of these active components.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make a foamy espresso! On the contrary, you can, with an electric mixer, see photo below. Adding sugar will make it even lighter. Notice how adding the sugar makes the air bubbles much smaller in size? The final foam won’t be as luscious and creamy as the instant coffee one. Also, it does collapse a lot faster.

whipped espresso with and without sugar
Espresso coffee made with an electric automatic coffee machine that grinds the beans shortly before making it into a coffee. The strongest setting available was used to make this coffee, which makes only 40ml of coffee. Whisking it for several minutes does make a foam. Adding sugar helps to make smaller, more stable air bubbles (a very similar concept to that of making meringue!).

Making Dalgona with flavoured instant coffees

Regular instant coffee is made from brewed coffee and nothing else. The type of bean may vary, as may the roasting levels, but that’s it.

What about the ‘fancy’ instant coffees? Ones with added flavors for instance? Some of these will work fine for a Dalgona. A little bit of flavor, won’t interfere with your foam-making ability. But take care, salt for instance is known to negatively impact foaming. And extra (milk) proteins may also influence your foam, some for the better, some for the worse.

Making Dalgona with ground beans

You can’t just mix water and ground coffee together and whip them together. You’ll be left with a lot of solid coffee particles, that prevent foaming and give an undesirable texture to your foam.

Also, regular drip coffee will be too diluted to foam. If you do want to use ground coffee you have two options.

First, you could try to use Turkish coffee. You make Turkish coffee by heating very finely ground coffee with water in a small coffee vessel. Various heating cycles ensure that you extract all flavours. By adding some more coffee you can concentrate the coffee. Do take care, Turkish coffee contains a lot of coffee solids and you don’t want these to end up in your coffee.

Alternatively, you could use regular ground coffee. Place the coffee in a filter and pour in the hot water. Let the coffee sit in the hot water for several minutes to extract a good amount of the coffee. Squeeze out all the moisture and test.

Both these methods are more finicky and you’ll likely need a few attempts to get the concentrations just right for your type of coffee and system!

Turkish coffee cups
Cups used to make Turkish coffee. Could you brew Turkish coffee strong enough to make a light and stable foam?

The flavour of Dalgona coffee

As hinted by its name giver, Dalgona candy. If you like sweet, milky, with a hint of caramel and not too strong a coffee flavour: then a Dalgona coffee is great for you! If you’re looking for a strong good coffee flavour though, Dalgona coffee is probably not the choice for you (although it’s fun to make!).

Improving coffee

Instant coffee generally isn’t made from the best quality beans. As such, instant coffees do have a bit of a reputation for being less nuanced in flavor. If you are looking for a less bitter coffee flavor of the Dalgona, try a different instant coffee. Buy another brand or buy one from an artisan maker. Some artisan coffee makers make instant coffees with special flavors! Remember that the bean quality and roasting process have a huge impact on flavor, so using one that you enjoy will make your Dalgona considerably better.

This applies even more so when making cold-brew coffee. The quality and flavor of the bean will determine the quality of your coffee.

It’s sweet, very sweet

Even though Dalgona coffee doesn’t taste very bitter, it does contain a lot of coffee! You have the sugar to thank for that. Sugar hides a lot of the bitter coffee flavors. Keep this in mind when drinking it. You may drink a lot more coffee than you realize.

Troubleshooting Dalgona coffees

Even though the recipe for a Dalgona coffee is pretty simple, there are still some things that can go wrong, or can be optimized.

What temperature should the water be?

You can make Dalgona coffee with regular, room temperature water. There is no need to use hot boiling water. In fact, using cooler water tends to help form that foam. At a lower temperature, the viscosity of your liquid mix will be higher, it is thicker. This helps to hold onto those air bubbles. If your mix doesn’t whip up well, try cooling it down a bit (don’t freeze it, ice doesn’t whip up well!).

It is important to keep in mind that the water needs to be warm enough to dissolve all the sugar you’re adding. Sugar dissolves water and better in warm water. If you notice that not all the sugar dissolves at the start, give the mix a quick heat in the microwave or on the stovetop to dissolve it. Alternatively, stir it and just wait a few minutes, more of the sugar will dissolve with some patience.

The water wasn’t warm enough or we didn’t stir enough at the start and as a result not all the sugar dissolved, resulting in those white dots!

How can you reduce the sweetness of Dalgona

If you think your Dalgona is too sweet, you can definitely reduce the sugar content. However, keep in mind that it will become less foamy. Also, it will be less stable. If you’re planning to drink your Dalgona within half hour after making that shouldn’t be a problem though.

The Dalgona coffee foam with sugar (left) or without sugar, instead using xanthan gum (right). See recipes below for exact composition of the different foams.

Sugar-free Dalgona?

If you don’t want to use any sugar, there’s another option: use xanthan gum. Be aware though, this one will be quite bitter since you no longer have the sweetness of the sugar covering that up.

Remember that, aside from providing sweetness, the main role of sugar is really to thicken the liquid to allow more air to be whipped in. You can achieve that same effect by adding a thickener and xanthan gum is very good at that (it’s why it’s used in ice cream as well).

Xantham gum stabilizes the coffee foam in a similar way as sugar does. However, since you only need a very small amount, a lot less than sugar, you will end up with less foam.

Three whipped coffees 2 hours after being made. Left: ‘regular’ Dalgona ; Middle: sugar-free Dalgona with xanthan gum ; Right: just instant coffee and water

How long can you store Dalgone for?

Made a successful Dalgona, but can’t finish it all in one go? Unfortunately, Dalgona coffee isn’t very stable. It will collapse quite rapidly. To stretch your Dalgona, try to:

  1. Store it in the fridge
  2. Just whisk your Dalgona again! Chances are you’ll be able to foam it up again.
dalgona coffee with milk in glass

Dalgona coffee

Yield: 2 cups
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes

A light and airy floating layer of coffee on top of a glass of milk.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp (= 6g) instant coffee
  • 2 tbsp (= 30g) water (see post for temperature, best to be cool or room temperature)
  • 2 tbsp (= 20g) sugar
  • 0.5l (roughly 1 pint) of milk*

Instructions

  1. Mix the instant coffee, water and sugar in a bowl. This quantity is large enough to whip up in a regular stand mixer, or you could use a separate electric mixer.
  2. Whip for long enough until the mix turns a light brown and has visibly increased in size. You're not at much at risk of over whipping as you are with egg whites or whipped cream. However, at some point, more mixing won't help any further and might only start breaking up bubbles.
  3. Fill two glasses with milk (warm or cold, however you prefer to drink it) and scoop the foam on top. Drink it as such or mix the foam through a little.
  4. Enjoy!

Notes

*In all honesty, it doesn't matter at all which liquid you use here. The milk does not have a structural role. Use something that works well with a strong sweet coffee flavour. Milk is the most common one since it's traditionally used with drinks like a cappuccino. If you wanted though, you could use orange juice (not sure I'd recommend that flavour wise!) or any type of non-dairy milk for instance.

Dalgona coffee comparison with without sugar

Sugar free Dalgona coffee foam

Yield: 2 cups
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes

This recipe makes a light and airy coffee foam, perfect for using as the Dalgona coffee topping on top of milk.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp (= 6g) instant coffee
  • 2 tsbp (= 30g) water
  • 1/8 tsp xanthan gum

Instructions

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in the bowl of a stand mixer (you can also whip by hand or with an electric mixer, whisking by hand does take a considerable amount of time).
  2. Whisk the ingredients together. Start on a slow setting to prevent splashing and turn up to a maximum speed once it starts to thicken and doesn't splash as much anymore.
  3. Enjoy on top of a glass of warm or cold milk. Keep in mind that this version has a very strong coffee flavour!

References

Robert J. Bergeron, et al., Method for reducing foam in instant coffee, United States Patent Office 3,436,227, Patented April 1, 1969, link ; this patent actually tries to prevent any foam formation!

Chefsteps, This is not a latte!, Sep-15, 2016, YouTube, link

Jenni Field, How to make beaten coffee, link

James Hoffman, Dalgona coffee – explained & upgraded, Mar-31, 2020, link

Ernesto Illy, Luciano Navarini, Neglected food bubbles: the espresso coffee foam, 2011, Food Biophysics, 6:335-348, link

Jin Joo, Dalgona – Korean sponge candy, Aug-28, 2019, link

Jin Joo, How to make Dalgona coffee, Mar-24, 2020, link

Mikova, K., Bovskova, H., Optimization of egg white foaming, link

OpenKitchen, Korean Sugar Candy, Dec-10, 2019, YouTube, link

Fernando M. Nunes, Manual A Coimbra, Influence of polysaccharide composition in foam stability ofespresso coffee, Carbohydrate Polymers 37 (1998) 283-285

Arundhuti Rama, Powerful and creamy Indian Espresso Coffee, June, 2, 2011, link

Whisk affair, How to make beaten coffee (Indian style cappuccino coffee), Oct-13, 2017, link

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15 Comments

  1. Awesome detail in this write up. Can a sugar-free sweetener be used in the Sugar-free version to add sweetness? Would they help with viscosity, are they neutral or do they act negatively with the foam like salt does?
    Thanks!

    • That’s a great question Jazz!

      You could definitely add some sugar-free sweetener, that’s actually a really good idea. I haven’t tried any, but I wouldn’t expect them to impact foam stability. If you’re using stevia, sucralose or aspartame you only need a tiny little bit of sweetener to get the same sweetness as sugar. You’ll need far less than you would use for sugar and as such, these don’t really impact viscosity at all.

      On a related note, if you’re using alternative sugars (e.g. maple syrup) you would be influencing viscosity, but not as much as sugar would. As such, if you try one of those out, I would suggest adding less water since the syrups themselves already contain moisture. These syrups aren’t as pure as sugar is, so they might contain some components that impact foam stability, but you’d have to try it out!

      If you’ve lost track of sugars and sweeteners and the different types, this article might help you out.

  2. I tried making Dalgona coffee last night for the first time. It worked REALLY beautifully. I used 2 T hot tap water, 2 T sugar, and a rounded T Cafe Bustelo espresso powder. I’ve got a whisk attachment for my stick blender, and in less than 30 seconds, I had a great, dense, high-volume foam. I put mine on half and half and vodka over ice, for a Dalgona Russian.

    I’ve been curious about WHAT makes the foam work, which is how I got here. Could you do this with fruit powders (dried pulverized raspberries, for instance) or with infused syrups? Do you NEED coffee to make a foam like this? How about a tiny pinch of unflavored gelatin?

    I was quite amazed at how successful the foam was! I rewhipped for a second drink and it whipped right back up. (Only a little liquid in the bowl, though…it didn’t deflate badly.) And this morning before popping in the dishwasher, the bowl was still coated with an amazing dried foam. Wouldn’t that be fun to freeze-dry? If only I had a freeze-dryer….

    • Hi Heidi,

      It’s fun to play with isn’t it?!

      The coffee works so well thanks to some naturally occurring ingredients in the coffee, it’s why also regular coffee can be whipped up to some extent. As such, I could expect something similar-ish to work with milk powder maybe but sugar syrups and fruits probably won’t work. Although there might be dried vegetables with some more stabilizing molecules in there that could work, but things like strawberries and apples won’t work well. They mostly contain sugar.
      I would think that gelatin and lecithin can both also help with the foam formation and stabilization and that might even make some unstable powders to work. I haven’t tried any of use but curious to hear what you find out!

  3. Fascinating – thanks for this!

    In terms of using alternatives to Instant, would
    a cold-brew reduction work? I have no idea if that method would extract & concentrate the necessary surfactants (it’s relatively hands-free & perhaps a bit more controllable, but I admit it would be time-consuming)

    • Hi Chris,

      I would say a cold brew could work as well, though haven’t tried it myself. I would say that during a cold brew process similar molecules will be extracted from the coffee beans as for a hot coffee. The quantities and ratios no doubt will be different. It is likely that the surfactants you need to leave the bean and enter the drink as well. By concentrating the cold brew you can likely make it work, although I would wonder whether the concentrating step wouldn’t ruin the step of the cold brew again (if you’re thinking of heating it to boil off water the flavor will likely decrease in quality). If you give it a try, please let us know!

  4. Hi, I’m currently doing a science project on dalgona coffee. I was wondering does the amount of sugar affect the consistency of the foam if the ratio kept the same except for an added amount of sugar (so the ratio would be 2:1:1 sugar to instant coffee to water).

    • Hi Joey,

      I would expect the amount of sugar to have an impact yes since it influences the consistency (viscosity) of the coffee. I would just try it out if I were you, it’s easy to make a small batch of it! Make a few coffees with different ratios of sugar and see how they behave (best to make it in clear glasses so you can easily see what’s going on!). Make sure you have a control without any sugar as well and keep in mind that if you add too much sugar it won’t dissolve anymore. Good luck!

  5. Thanks for this article! Could you “whip” this by putting it through a soda siphon/charger to create the foam?

    • Hi Bobby,

      I haven’t tried it myself, but I do think that it might be possible, possibly with some adjustments. If it doesn’t form a stable enough foam, you might have to concentrate it a little further. If you try it, let us know how it went!

  6. I’ve been making it without the milk–just foam. One consideration–two tablespoons of coffee (6 tsp) has the equivalent of 6 cups of coffee. I now use a mix of 2/3 decaf. And I’ve also mixed up a large batch of instant coffee(s) and sugar in a jar. The sugar settles, but IO pull out the jar, shake it and then mix with an equal amount of water to save time.

    This can be delicious as a quick frosting for a spongecake, or topping for fruit.

    I’ve been wondering about savory foams to enhance foods.

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