French Press Coffee: Step-by-Step Guide to Handcrafted Coffee
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.
- 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.
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.
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)
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?