French Press Coffee: Step-by-Step Guide to Handcrafted Coffee

By Greg Go on 31 July 2009 (Updated 8 July 2014) 36 comments

The French press, also known as a press pot, is a 19th century French invention that brews an awesome cup of coffee. It bridges the gap between the speed and convenience of a drip coffee maker and the robust flavors of espresso. (See also: Best Coffee Makers)

Wikipedia gives us some basic info about the French press:

The French press goes by various names around the world. In New Zealand, Australia and South Africa the whole apparatus is known as a coffee plunger and coffee brewed in it as plunger coffee. Its French name is cafetière à piston. In French it is also known by its brand names, notably a Bodum or a melior, from an old brand of this type. In the UK, the Netherlands, and Ireland the device is known as a cafetière, the French word for a coffee maker or pot...Coffee is brewed by placing the coffee and water together, leaving to brew for a few minutes, then depressing the plunger to trap the coffee grounds at the bottom of the beaker.

Making coffee via French press is more art than science. There are a few fundamentals to follow, but beyond that, everyone's got their own "recipe." And that makes it interesting. The personalization of my morning cup of coffee is part of the fun of using a French press. (See also: 12 Ways to Make Coffee at Home)

If you want to add a little jolt to your caffeine-enjoyment, check out the French press. It's fairly cheap, produces rich and delicious coffee, and it's not that complicated. Here are step-by-step instructions and tips for getting the most enjoyment out of a cup of French pressed coffee.

How to Use a French Press: Step-by-Step

(Thanks to kpwerker for the awesome French press photo set that inspired this post. I can almost smell that coffee!)

1. Use water that is slightly cooler than boiling.

Bring water to a boil, then wait a minute or two. Or cool the boiling water with a shot of cool or cold water.

Use fresh water that has not been boiled before for the best taste. The reason is because the water we drink (from the tap or bottle) has been aerated and has dissolved gases that make the water taste better. Boiling removes the gases and leaves a "flat" taste. (I'm not 100% convinced of this and am usually too lazy to empty the electric kettle of previously-boiled water. But this advice has been handed down for generations, is often quoted by tea and coffee connoisseurs, and the explanation sounds reasonable.)

Tip: Put a bit of hot water in the empty French press to warm it up. You'll end up with a hotter final cup.

2. Grind your own coffee beans.

Freshly ground coffee is easily 10 times better than pre-ground coffee. Even non-connoisseurs will instantly notice the significant difference in aroma, flavor and overall awesomeness of the cup of coffee.

Tip: For the best taste, freshly ground coffee is more important than having perfectly sized grounds. So if the cost of a burr grinder is prohibitive, choose to buy whole beans and grind at home with a cheap blade grinder versus buying pre-ground coffee. (See also: Best Coffee Grinders)

3. Use a coarse grind.

You want uniform large pieces so the grinds don't slip through the mesh filter. But the grind shouldn't be so large that you can't extract most of the goodness, making for weak bland coffee.

Tip: Adjust the strength of your brew by adjusting your grind size. I like my coffee strong, so I aim for a finer grind that is just large enough for the mesh.

4. Use 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 1 cup of water.

The rule of thumb is for each 8 oz water (1 cup), use 2 tablespoons coffee. You can add more or less, depending on how strong you like your coffee. (I like it stronger, so I'll go 2.5 or 3 tablespoons for every cup of water.) If you want to get really nerdy about measurements, check out this chart of coffee to water ratios from The Black Bear Micro Roastery.

5. Pour, stir, cover.

Pour water evenly over grounds and stir to make sure the hot water gets to every bit. Stir to make sure all the grounds are immersed in the water and to help with the extraction of the delicious oils and compounds.

Tips:

  • A chopstick is great for stirring. Try to avoid using a metal spoon as it causes microcracks in the glass of the French press and increases the chance it will shatter.
     
  • When you cover the French press for steeping, don't let the filter touch the brew to prevent cooling it more than necessary.

6. Steep for 4 minutes.

Four minutes is the standard number that gets thrown around. For a stronger brew, steep for as much as 10 minutes. For the small 3-4 cup (12-16 oz) French presses, you can get away with 2 minutes of steeping.

Some folks really like the no steep time method. This is the method recommended by French press maker Illy. This produces a much less bitter cup of coffee. To get the same kick as a longer steep but without the added bitterness, you can use more ground coffee.

Try these variations and see which one you like best:

  • Extra dark: Steep 10 minutes.
  • Standard: Steep 4 minutes.
  • Short steep:: Steep for 30-60 seconds.
  • No steep: Plunge immediately after stirring.

7. Press down on the plunger evenly and slowly.

Keep the plunger straight vertically, or else grounds will slip through the sides of the filter. Press down slowly — just using the weight of your hand and arm for pressure — to minimize stirring up the dust or forcing tiny grinds through the mesh filter.

8. Pour and enjoy!

I'll leave a bit of water in the French press to minimize the coffee dust in the cup. Even with my crappy blade grinder, I get a fairly sludge-free cup of coffee.

Mmm... dark, delicious coffee.

9. Wash the French press.

Clean the press pot well. It makes a difference in taste because droplets of oil from the coffee can go rancid and ruin your next cup.

Hardware Notes

French Press

Bodum is by far the largest press pot company in the world. If you go to Target looking to buy a French press, 9 out of 10 choices will be by Bodum.

Coffee Geek gives us a quick lesson in press pot history:

Bodum is probably more responsible for the common day occurrence of the press pot than any other company. In the seventies, they started introducing their whacked out colours in their plastic, metal and glass press pots. In the 1980s, fueled by their profits, they bought lines like Chambord and brought out more classical-look press pots. The rest is, as they say, history.

French presses come in a variety of sizes, from single-serving 12 oz (3 cup) models up to monstrous 48 oz (12 cup) ones.

Get a larger one than you think you will need. About 10-20% of the space will be "wasted" with grounds and unpoured water.

The glass Bodum press pots, especially the Chambord line, are ubiquitous. But you have other choices as well. Bonjour is another popular brand. And there are unbreakable models that are worth a look. (I've broken more than one glass French press. It especially sucks when there's hot coffee in it when it falls off the counter and shatters.)

Buying tip: When you see "cups" in product descriptions, they don't mean the standard unit of measurement of 8 fluid ounces. They mean little coffee cups (Tasse à café) that are typically 4 oz.

Coffee Grinder

There are two kinds of coffee grinders: blade and burr. Blade grinders are much cheaper (around $20-30) but produce "dust to boulder" sized pieces of coffee. They also don't have size settings — the longer you grind, the smaller the pieces — so you'll have to learn how long to grind through trial and error (and be consistent). Serious French pressers only use burr grinders.

(Wise Bread Pick: Capresso Infinity Burr Grinder at Amazon)

Coffee geek explains why best:

With a press pot, particle size of the grounds is as important as it is for espresso. The difference is, you want uniform large particles, instead of uniform tiny particles. Cheap grinders can't give you either — they will give you a mixed bag of big and small chunks. Dust and boulders. It's what leads to the thing people dislike most about press pot coffee — the sludge.

When he says cheap grinders, he's talking about blade grinders versus their more expensive burr grinder cousins. To get a uniform grind, you'll need to use a burr grinder. But blade grinders are far cheaper (the coffee grounds still make a cup of joe, so you'll have to weigh the pros against your budget).

Tips From Commenters

UPDATE: There are some great tips and notes from commenters below I want to highlight:

  • Pour out the brewed coffee into a carafe if you're not going to drink it right away. Don't leave it in the French press or else it will get really strong and bitter. — Mike from Daily Shot of Coffee
     
  • Add a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg to the coffee grounds to spice things up. — Guest
     
  • The French press is great for its portability! Perfect for camping because you only have one item (the press pot) and no need for electricity. — Myscha Theriault
     
  • The whole thing can go in the dishwasher! Also, non-Bodum brands (like one from Ikea) could be significantly cheaper. — Chris

Great comments guys! Thanks! Keep 'em coming.

Your turn: Do you make coffee with a French press? What's your favorite French press technique or recipe?

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Guest's picture

I just got the same french press last week and follow just about the same exact steps to make my coffee. The result has been some amazing coffee, truly two or three notches above coffee from my drip maker. The only other thing that I would add is pour any extra out into a kettle, carafe, whatever and not just leaving it in the french press with the coffee. I found out the hard way that the result is some extra strong coffee.

Guest's picture
Rhonda

I don't have this exact French Press. I have a glass 3 ring, 20 oz press and a stainless steel double wall 27 oz press that I use as well. I had never used a press before March of '14 when a friend of mine started her own coffee company. This coffee is roasted when I order it and not sitting on a shelf for months.
I purchased a burr grinder and grind mine to a Medium/Coarse grind. I use 3 tbs. per 16 oz of water. I steep for 4-5 minutes as my husband likes a bolder flavor.
I have NEVER had a better cup of coffee. The oils are exquisite and the aroma is out of this world.
So... needless to say, I don't use my drip coffee maker anymore except for my husband when he gets up for work at midnight. When he is home, he absolutely prefers the French Press method.
Thank you for a well written article, as it adds to my ever increasing knowledge base for that perfect cup of coffee.

Myscha Theriault's picture

French pressed coffee rocks. My husband makes me a cup every morning. Since we're both bleary eyed at that time, it's usually the go heavier on the coffee and shorter on the steep type of technique.

What's cool about the French press is that you can enjoy awesome coffee even while camping or during power blackouts after a huge typhoon or hurricane. As long as you have your outdoor gas burner and teapot (or have a gas stove inside to begin with), you're good to go. Now, if the power's out you need to have preground beans instead, but it's still good coffee when you otherwise wouldn't be able to have any.

Cool article.

Check out my various projects and services at Itinerant Tightwad. I also have a monthly education newsletter.

Guest's picture

Great article - Very informative and accurate - I love the cozy - Do you Tweet? Mine is cardinalcoffee --- Thanks

Guest's picture
Chris

I've used my french press almost exclusively since I got it for Christmas in '07. In addition to tasting better, it has other advantages:

- No filters to buy or discard
- Great for camping and car travel
- Needs only hot water
- Takes up less counter space
- The entire thing can go in the dishwasher

I use regular ground Folgers medium roast and it works great! So you don't have to grind your own. It does leave some sludge at the bottom of your cup, but I just dump the last 1/4" or so.

BTW- Ikea had one a few months back that was about the same size as my Bodum for about half the price.

Guest's picture

I just picked up a press this weekend at Ikea. I think it was $12-13. I read this article and wanted to try it but didn't feel like spending a lot for something I may or may not like.

(Turned out I liked the flavor a lot - now I am thinking about getting a burr grinder...)

Guest's picture

I love pressed coffee! It's one of my weekend morning treats
(after getting to sleep in). Very nice, informative post - thank you!!

Guest's picture
Guest

Sometimes I add a dash of freshly ground cinnamon and/or nutmeg to the coffee grinds. . . a yummy wake-up call but not for the coffee purist.

Guest's picture
Nick

French presses are great, though after breaking one glass carafe I recommend an unbreakable model. Mine new one's stainless steel and it works great.

The press also has many other uses, including but not limited to:

-A substitute for a teapot when brewing looseleaf teas/herbal beverages

-Filtering homemade infused liquors (as long as you can find some other way to make your coffee for a week or two.

If you're looking for a cheap date, go to a coffeeshop and ask for a french press for two, and serve eachother's drinks! It's a bit more fun & interactive than having the barista do all the work.

Guest's picture
Margaret

I can make the best coffee with my little French press, way better than the drip coffee or Americano I can get at a coffee shop. I recommend using a short brewing time, about 3 mins, to keep the coffee from getting bitter. I also add a teaspoon or two of pure cocoa powder to the cup before drinking it. It doesn't give it much of a chocolatey flavor, but it makes it rich and delicious.

Guest's picture

One of the joys of fresh ground coffee is the crema (the light brown foam) which is composed of emulsified oils. It is the hallmark of a properly extracted espresso but also appears with the press. Crema has a high concentration of aroma and flavor. I always make sure that I pour a bit of the crema into my demitasse cup. Heavenly!

Guest's picture
Julia

I bought one of these 6-8 months ago. Three days later I unplugged my drip coffeemaker and stuffed it in a closet. I'm not a coffee snob as a rule but if I broke my press today I'd have to stop and get a new one on the way home from work.

Guest's picture

Looks delicious. While you're sipping your French Press Coffee, read a Coffee Tale.

Guest's picture
Christina

I think it should be called a Freedom Press ;0)

Guest's picture
Chris

Because a french press brings out the flavors so well, great way to do tastings as well. I just brought back coffee from the Kona region and even tasting the fine differences between farms is noticeable with a french press.

Guest's picture
_chemist

One of the nest things about the press is that you can also froth mill with it! I actually use a moka pot for espresso like coffee, and then make my milk with the press. It gives me a shop quality latte or capuccino at
home with no machines!

Guest's picture
Guest

what do you do with the used coffee grounds? I would appreciate a solution.

Milly

Guest's picture
Guest

I throw the used grounds in the compost...makes plants happy.

Guest's picture
ezprezzo

No. I don't make coffee with a French Press. I've had four. I've used my own grinder, and had the outlet/roaster grind for me, four minutes from my door. No way of getting around the sludge, with a $10 French press or a $60 one. There is NO way to avoid the sludge, and you do not want to be drinking that sludge; better a paper filter than your kidneys.

Guest's picture
Devon

Really not sure what you're doing to end up with sludge every time. I use a 32oz Bodum press, grind my own beans (2/3 cup beans - 5 seconds in the nutribullet) use fresh water that has just started to simmer and press after about 4 minutes. (I like it strong) I don't get sludge, but do get great, rich coffee. Perhaps the mesh on your press is too course? The Bodum mesh on mine is VERY small gauge!

Guest's picture
Guest

I switched to a burr grinder from Starbucks set to medium grind. No more sludge.

You really either need a burr grinder or just tell your coffee bean supplier that you want the beans ground for a press. I agree fresh ground is best, but ground at the store isn't bad and it does avoid the sludge.

BTW, Starbucks and its competitors sell a personal travel press. Bring ground coffee and the press to work. Add hot water and heavenly coffee is yours.

Guest's picture
dorothy

the problem with french press coffee is it is BAD for your heart health because of a fatty component that is filtered by filtered coffee.  Check out the link below:

http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/articles/051219/19coffee.htm

I'm back to plain ol filtered coffee in the mornings.

Dorothy

Guest's picture
Guest

Enjoy the toxins that leech in from the plastic. I'm sticking with my all stainless steel press for life.

Guest's picture

This is a very professional post - tips, pictures and all! I am soon to get a coffee press as well as a grinder, and this is by far the best instructions on how to brew coffee in a french press!

Great job!

Guest's picture
RishadQ

Also, try grinding up to 8 whole green cardamom pods with a handful of coffee beans for a really nice aromatic spicey flavor. Tinker with the ratios to see how much cardamom you like, but I recommend no more than 8 pods.

Meg Favreau's picture

I LOVE doing this -- I'll sometimes add a piece of cinnamon stick as well.

Guest's picture
Guest

I like the cinnamon, but I also sometimes cut a vanilla bean into small pieces and add that when I grind the beans. Somewhat reminiscent of Vietnamese "chon" coffee.

Guest's picture
Adam

Found this via a google search, made the best cuppa ever from the press. Thanks much!

Guest's picture
brewer2012

Connoisseur's Brewing Ratio states:
4 cups = 24 ounces of water and 8 tablespoons (1.5 ounces by weight) of coffee
previously someone posted 4 cups was 16 ounces, check with your coffee source and grinder manufacturer to be sure.

One coffee importer suggested that 8 tablespoons of whole beans or ground works out to be virtually the same. He throws the grounds in the hot water and waits 4 minutes. No metal, plastic or paper filter taste interference.

Since the French press has no metal parts I heat my water in the microwave in the French press rather than in a metal tea pot. You can monitor it and make sure it doesn't boil and stir with wooden spoon.

The Cuisinart burr grinder allows for adjusting courseness and number of cups ground and is $37 or less. You press a button and get the exact courseness and amount every time. I brush off the fine dust which accumulates before putting it in the press. When selecting your grind setting remember that the higher the number the coarser the grind. Use 1-6 for Espresso, 7-12 for Auto Drip, and 13-18 for French Press.

Guest's picture

The problem with a French Press is once you start making it correctly it will make just about all other 'standard' coffee taste bleh. Seriously, try going to your local diner for a cup of joe after a good French Press cup. It will taste like water. Not that I'm complaining. Give me the good stuff.

One thing I do is an initial stir after I pour the water then a second stir about a minute in. This gets the bloom that forms back in the water.

Oh, I picked up my Krups burr grinder for like $25 at Costco. Keep your eyes peeled because there are deals out there.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have a small Bodum with a plastic enclosure I bring on my travels along with a bag each of coarse ground coffee from a popular coffee shop. Saves me a bundle on coffee in hotels.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've read that Ikea coffee presses have been recalled for shattering. I have one, and I like it, and I'm not going to give it up so I use a little trick to cut down on the pressure when plunging. After steeping I put a little cooler water over the grounds, (a thimble full of water is enough), then I push the plunger down. The plunger goes down to the bottom effortlessly.
Also, I find that it's easy for this kind of coffee to become too cool. So I warm up the cups under hot water, and also warm up the coffee press before I use it. I don't steep very long and I serve it with hot milk.

Guest's picture
Guest

The French press from IKEA shattered when I used it, leaving hot water, coffee grounds, and broken glass all over my kitchen. I was finding grounds for months! They recalled the model a few weeks later. Bodium is the way to go.

Guest's picture
Guest

Bodum is pretty much the gold standard for French press coffee makers, and yet they aren't that expensive. $20 or so for a 16oz base model if you shop around.

Guest's picture
Danielle

I've just switched to a press pot, from a stovetop espresso maker, for the prime reason of wanting more crema in my cup. However, I'm not getting any! I do recall a french press being able to deliver that bittersweet goodness. Is there something I'm not doing? What can I do to promote crema?

Guest's picture
Guest

Save the ”spent” grounds for the garden. Many plants (holly, hydrangeas, etc.) love the acidic boost the grounds will give them.