In this post, I will cover everything you need to know about the French Press coffee maker. I’ll talk about its origins, show you how it works, but more importantly, I’m going to demonstrate how to use a French Press correctly to make great coffee!
A No Nonsense French Press Definition
The french press, or ‘cafetiere’ if you’re in Europe, is above all a method of brewing coffee. The press itself is a glass jug or beaker with an attached pressing strainer built into the lid.
It first appeared in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. However, there is a debate over whether it’s origins began in France or in Italy.
French or Italian: The Great Debate
There’s a bit of controversy here. Some would say that the french press was invented in France. In 1924, a patent was filed by French inventor Marcel-Pierre Paquet dit Jolbert. His invention was a rudimentary coffee press.
However, in 1923 an Italian by the name of Ugo Paolini lodged a patent for a very similar device. His patent documents identified his invention as being a tomato juice strainer. Nevertheless, it is claimed he developed the idea of using this technology to brew coffee.
Whether it’s French or Italian, coffee lovers the world over are surely thankful for this reliable coffee brewing method.
What You’ll Need To Make French Press Coffee
Before I show you how to use a French press and enjoy that steaming cup of delicious coffee, you’ll need to gather a few ingredients and equipment first. If you’ve brewed coffee with any other method before, you’ll recognize some of these things. Let’s take a look.
First and foremost, you’ll need your french press. You’ll likely be able to pick this up easily online or in your local department store. But it’s important to make sure that the press you buy is complete and of good quality.
- Beaker – The main part of your french press. This is usually made from a good quality, heat proof glass. However, it isn’t uncommon to find them made of metal or durable plastic. Whatever it’s made off, look for a good handle that isn’t flimsy and will disperse the heat well (especially important for metal beakers).
- Lid and Plunger – Sitting atop the beaker is the lid and plunger. The lid is pretty self explanatory, but the plunger’s job is to push the filters through your coffee. This will separate your spent grinds from your brewed extract.
- Filters – The plunger will usually be attached to a series of filters at its base. These filters allow the natural oils that exist within coffee to pass through, while stopping coarser grinds of coffee. This keeps your coffee smooth and tasting great, without any grittiness.
This probably goes without saying, but coffee beans are a very important part of brewing coffee. While you can purchase pre-ground coffee, I think it’s much better to get whole beans.
Once the coffee is ground, it begins to lose it’s flavor. If you buy fresh, whole beans instead you will get a vibrant cup of joe every single time.
I often get asked which coffee is the best for french press. While you might occasionally see coffee marketed as ‘french press coffee’, you can actually use whatever coffee you like.
I enjoy using a single origin colombian arabica, but that’s because it’s one of my favorites. If you prefer a vietnamese robusta, then you will surely enjoy it in your french press.
Any water here will do. Even tap water is fine providing your local supply is clean and safe to drink. If you have hard water, you may want to filter it first or use bottled spring water. This will ensure a cup of coffee that is free of limescale and also prolong the life of your french press and it’s filters.
If you’re using whole coffee beans, you’ll need to get yourself a coffee grinder. You’ll find them marketed as ‘burr grinders’, which are usually the best for grinding coffee beans.
You can get either electric or manual grinders. Either will work just fine, except you’ll save time and elbow grease if you get yourself an electric burr grinder.
Again, I can’t stress enough how important grinding your own beans is for the overall quality of your coffee.
We’ll come on to ratios of coffee to water in a little while, but a digital scale will help you when we do. If you do much cooking, it’s likely you have a set of scales anyway. No need to go out and fetch another set. Those should work just fine.
This is so you can measure exactly how long you’re steeping your coffee grinds for. But gone are the days of needing an egg timer in the kitchen. Your phone will likely handle this part.
While this isn’t strictly necessary, a thermometer will help you achieve the optimal water temperature for brewing your coffee.
Water that is too hot or too cold will impact the efficiency of the extraction and the quality of your end product.
How To Use A French Press: Step by Step
Step 1: Measure And Grind Your Coffee
Probably goes without saying, but it’s important to measure your coffee and then grind it properly.
How much coffee for the French press?
The amount of coffee you need will be determined by the size of your french press. While you could probably just eyeball it, it’s best to use the right ratio. You’re looking for around 1:15 (so 1 part coffee to 15 parts water).
Be sure to check out this section of this article for a deeper look at this ratio.
Step 2: Preheat The Press
To preheat your press, fill the beaker with ordinary boiled water that is still hot. This might seem like an unnecessary step, but it absolutely isn’t!
If you don’t preheat the press, you risk fluctuations in temperature of the water against your cold equipment. It just helps you keep control over the temperature of your coffee during the all important steep.
Step 3: Measure And Heat The Water
Measure out how much hot water you’ll need. I find it easier to boil it first and then measure it. Use the ratio below to know how much water you’ll need.
While the amount of water needed will depend on the size of your beaker, you want a ratio of around 1:15 (1 part coffee to 15 parts water). But it’s not just the amount of water that is important, but also the temperature.
I usually recommend a water temperature of around 200F. This is enough to properly steep your beans while still being hot enough to enjoy once this process has finished.
Step 4: Combine The Coffee And Water
In the beaker, combine the ground coffee and the water.
Step 5: Stir and Steep
Once your coffee and water have mixed in the beaker, I like to give it a stir. Then, I’ll put the lid on and let it steep.
How long to steep?
The amount of time you leave your coffee to steep is important. If you don’t steep it long enough, you’ll have a watery cup. If you over steep, you’ll end up with a very bitter coffee. I usually say 4 minutes is the magic spot.
But of course this depends completely on preference. If you like it stronger or weaker, you can adjust the time accordingly. If you’re not sure, experiment and see what you like best.
Step 6: Fix The Crust
I used to think this step was optional, but honestly it really isn’t.
Once your 4 minutes is up, if you lift off the lid you’ll notice the coffee has formed a crust on top of the water. I like to think of this a little like the coffee cake in a group head of an espresso machine.
Now, you have two options. For a stronger, fuller bodied flavour and mouthfeel, stir the crust back into the water. This is what I like to do.
However, if you prefer a lighter, smoother taste, you can remove it. It’s totally up to you. If you’re not sure, try both and see what suits you best.
Step 7: Press The Coffee
Now it’s time for the all important press. Press down gently on the plunger and allow gravity and a little light pressure to push the filters down and through the coffee.
Whether you’ve removed the crust or not, it’s very important not to miss this step. Otherwise you’ll end up with a very gritty cup of coffee.
Step 8: Enjoy!
That’s it, it’s time to enjoy! Although there is something I thought I’d mention. Try to avoid serving the last half inch of coffee. Even though we’ve pressed with our filter, inevitably smaller grains of coffee will make it through.
Like with the beaker, leave the last half inch of coffee in your cup as well. I find it tends to be a little gritty as well.
But that’s just preference, so if you like the last half inch then by all means drink it! It’ll do you no harm.
Is French Press Actually Any Good?
Ultimately, the answer to this is going to be subjective. However, I would say it’s a yes.
You won’t see any fancy crema or taste the complex flavor you’d get from an espresso machine. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, you’d want to look elsewhere. But the French press provides a good, rustic cup of coffee that many will enjoy.
But there’s some more advantages and disadvantages that might not immediately come to mind.
Easy To Clean
The best thing about a french press is how easy it is to clean. Unless you’ve bought an electric press, the beaker and filters can happily go into the dishwasher.
How to clean a french press
Although I feel the dishwasher is kind of overkill. All you really need to do is rinse the beaker and wipe down the filters. But if you are stuck for time you absolutely can throw it in with your regular dishes, silverware and glasses.
Cheap And Cheerful
The french press itself is actually very economical. You can pick up an excellent model for under $20, and a perfectly serviceable one for under $10.
Once you’ve bought your press, you very rarely have to buy anything extra for it (except coffee). Sometimes you might want to change the filters, but that’s not something you’ll need to do often. Unless you don’t clean it after each use.
Because you don’t need a very fine grind of coffee, you can also get away with a cheaper quality burr grinder. Maybe even a manual grinder. A medium-coarse grind is all you’ll need.
So beyond that, all you’re spending money on is your coffee beans.
Smaller Carbon Footprint
Nearly all french presses on the market are manual. By using one, you’re cutting down on your carbon footprint. This is in contrast to a drip filter, which can stay connected to the grid all day long.
If going green is a big motivator for you, getting the french press is a good way to offset some of the dirtier aspect of drinking coffee.
Coffee is only reliably grown along the equator. If you live in South America, Africa or parts of Asia, no problem. But if not, just buying a bag of coffee will increase your carbon footprint considerably.
Using a french press can be a damage limitation exercise for the responsible coffee drinker.
Not only is the french press good for brewing coffee, but you can also use it to make loose tea!
Much like coffee, buying whole leaf tea is the best way of getting an excellent tasting cuppa. But it can be annoying using tea strainers. You can’t blame people for buying pre-ground tea in steeping bags.
But just throw your loose tea into your french press. Simple!
With a few changes in technique, you can also make use of your french press to make cold brew! More on this in a future post.
Lots Of Equipment Required
If you noticed for the equipment section above, there’s a bit of kit you’ll need to get started.
Beyond the french press itself, you’ll need digital scales, a thermometer, and some way to boil water.
This may not seem like a lot, but if you compare this to a drip filter machine, all you need is coffee and extra paper filters. For some coffee brewing machines, all you need is coffee!
Very Hands On
It’s not as simple as just loading the coffee and pressing a button. With a french press, you need to measure weight, preheat your beaker, monitor temperature and press the plunger.
While none of these things are difficult to achieve, it certainly makes this method of brewing more hands on and time consuming.
Serve Immediately Or Not At All
If you like your coffee strong and bitter, this isn’t an issue. But most people prefer a balanced cup of joe.
Once you brew your coffee in a french press, you really need to serve it right away. Otherwise the water will continue to extract long after it’s gone cold.
Which is another consideration to make. Your hot coffee won’t stay hot forever. Unlike with drip filter machines, the french press doesn’t come with a built in hot plate.
This is never a problem in my house. We drink it far too quickly! But it’s something worth keeping in mind. Nobody likes waste, especially not their favorite coffee beans.
What Else Should I Know?
The Best Ratio
The french press doesn’t come with a handy marker that tells you when to stop adding coffee or hot water. We need to put a little bit of thought into this.
As previously stated, a good rule of thumb is 1:15 of coffee to water. So if you’re using 50 grams of coffee, you’ll want to use 750ml of water. You can use this ratio with all regional measurements.
But this is just an average and doesn’t take into account personal tastes, different types of coffee, roast level and so on. Even with a 1:15 ratio, each batch could differ in quality based on these variables.
Some experimentation is needed to find a ratio that works well for you. I would take 1:15 as a starting point and then make adjustments depending on how much (or how little) you like it.
Not strong enough? Reduce the amount of water and up your coffee. Too strong? Do the opposite.
You could spend hours trying to calculate the amount of coffee to water you’ll need. I personally don’t have it in me to do that. I think a more practical way of figuring this out suits me best. Besides, It’s unlikely you’ll make a bad cup of coffee.
The Best Grind Size
I’ve found a medium to medium-coarse grind to be the best choice for a french press. While you can use any grain size, this is the sweet spot.
A coarse grind takes too long. It really slows down the extraction process. I’ve also found it doesn’t quite extract enough of the coffee either. By using a medium to medium-coarse grind, you’re giving the hot water a higher surface area from which to exact the coffee.
On the flip side, a fine grind is too messy. While it will extract very quickly, it will clog up the layers between your filters. You’ll spend ages cleaning the sludge off your grates. But if that doesn’t put you off, it gets worse.
Even with a medium-coarse grind, finer particles of coffee will always make it through your filters. It’s why I always recommend leaving the last half inch of coffee in your beaker and your mug.
But if you use a fine grind, this is so much worse. When I experimented, I kept getting coffee grinds stuck to the back of my throat. I was practically choking on it! Not pleasant at all.