There are a million ways to geek out over coffee. But in the end, what we're after is a hot, delicious cup of coffee to see us through the morning. A simple pleasure.
French press is one of the easiest, least expensive ways to make great coffee. Learn the essentials: here's how to make a pot of great French press coffee.
The Pros and Cons of French Press Coffee
French press makes coffee by steeping the grounds in hot water, and then pressing the grounds out.
After the drip coffee maker, it's one of the easiest, least time-consuming ways to make a great cup of coffee. Also, unlike pour over and the Aeropress, it makes it easy to brew coffee for several people at once. But it is prone to bitterness and oiliness, since the coffee is sitting directly on the grounds for a period of time, and this can turn people off.
The Basics of Great French Press Coffee
It took me a while to warm up to French press. I have been brewing it since shortly after college, when a roommate and her boyfriend gifted me my first French press and a little blade grinder. But, while I brewed it almost every day, I found it bitter and murky for my taste. Eventually I switched to the speedy Aeropress, which gives a clean, robust cup of coffee quickly.
But then I married a man who has this eerily amazing habit of bringing me coffee in bed. His brewing method of choice is the French press, and he won me over. It's not just having coffee in bed that has turned me into a devotee of French press (although of course that helps). Turns out that my method had been missing one key element all those years: The right grinder.
Did you know that coffee and sleep go together? Watch the video!
Troubleshooting French Press Coffee
There are two things that really muck up French press coffee: water temperature — boiling water that scorches the grounds, or tepid water that doesn't extract fully — and badly ground coffee with too much fine grit that makes the pressed coffee muddy and bitter.
These are the two factors that, to me, are most commonly ignored and yet easiest to remedy. All you need is a sense of how hot your water is and a burr grinder.
→ Takeaway: Getting the temperature right is easy (just take the water off the boil and let it sit for a minute before brewing).
Why a Burr Grinder Is Important for Good French Press
And then there's the grinder. There aren't many processes in the kitchen that truly depend on one gadget or tool, but good French press coffee is one of them.
Here's why. A regular blade grinder like this one is perfectly good for grinding coffee beans for a drip machine and other methods, but a French press relies on having very evenly-sized grains of coffee, and they need to be relatively big. Smaller-sized grains will get through the filter, creating a sediment in your cup, and also get over-extracted, making your coffee bitter. It's essential that all the coffee beans are ground to the same consistency and the burr grinder (what's a burr grinder?) is far superior at making this happen.
→ Takeaway: If your French press turns out too bitter for you, or with a lot of gunky sediment at the bottom, then consider changing your grinder to a burr grinder. Or have your local coffee shop grind the coffee beans for you; their commercial grinders will do a great job as well.
If you don't have space for a burr grinder, then another brewing method might be better for you, like the Chemex or another pour over, or the Aeropress. More on these methods soon!
More on Burr Grinders
Getting Geeky Over French Press
However, you can get a lot more technical and geeky than that over French press. Just take a look at the varying levels of instruction and minuscule attention paid to grams and brewing time at Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, and Serious Eats. Whew.
Personally, I don't feel that one needs to quibble over 40 grams versus 36 grams of grounds to water, or whether you should weigh your beans and water rather than measuring them by volume.
I have a hunch that some of you will argue with me about that, but if you are Into Coffee, then there are a million things to twiddle all the time. That's part of the pleasure of coffee; like other things in cooking, you can improve and tweak to your heart's content, and find a lot of satisfaction in it.
But if you're just getting into French press, I think that this is the easiest method that includes the essentials but doesn't get too geeky. If you are more comfortable weighing your coffee and water than measuring by volume, go to it! If you are persnickety about how long to brew which roasts, have at it! I'm right behind you.
But for now, let's just talk basics. Because in the end, it's just a cup of coffee, and I do hope that more of you will find your morning sustenance in a cup of French press, as it is really so delicious when done (mostly) right.
Ratio of Water & Coffee for French Press
The instructions below make 32 ounces, a common size of French press that makes about four servings. But what if you want to make more or less? Here's a general guide to proportions by volume. Note that coffee beans are measured before grinding.
- 1 serving — 1 cup water (8 fluid ounces) — 2 tablespoons coffee beans
- 2 servings — 2 cups water (16 fluid ounces) — 1/4 cup coffee beans
- 4 servings — 4 cups water (32 fluid ounces) — 1/2 cup coffee beans
- 8 servings — 8 cups water (64 fluid ounces) — 1 cup coffee beans
How To Make Coffee with a French Press
Makes 32 ounces; serves 3 to 4
What You Need
freshly-roasted coffee beans
French press, should hold at least 32 ounces
Electric kettle OR a stovetop kettle
Measure the coffee beans: Measure out 1/2 cup coffee beans. (Or, if you're making less than 32 ounces, refer to our coffee proportions chart above.)
Grind the coffee beans: Grind the beans on the coarsest setting in a burr grinder. If you don't have a burr grinder, grind in brief, sharp pulses in a blade grinder, stopping every couple seconds to invert the grinder and give it a sharp shake while holding the lid on. Your coffee grounds should be rough and coarse, but still evenly-sized, without a lot of fine grit. Stumptown describes the ideal size and shape as "breadcrumbs." Pour the grounds into the French press.
Heat the water to boiling, then cool for 1 minute. Measure 4 cups water. (Or, if you're making less than 32 ounces, refer to our coffee proportions chart above.) Water for French press coffee should be heated to 195°F. This is below boiling, which is 212°F at sea level. Heat the water in a stovetop or electric kettle to boiling, then take off the heat for about 1 full minute before making the coffee. If you want to make extra-sure it's the right temperature, use a thermometer to check. (Or, if you have a fancy newer kettle with custom temperature settings, choose "coffee.")
Add the water: Add the full 4 cups of hot water to the French press.
Stir the brew: Stir vigorously, using an up and down motion.
Steep for 4 minutes: Four minutes will produce a robust brew. If you want to tweak your French press as you learn its nuances, you may find that different roasts of coffee do better with slightly longer or shorter steeping times.
Plunge the press: When the timer goes off, immediately press the plunger all the way to the bottom. Drink the coffee immediately.
- Warm the French Press First: One step we didn't include here, for the sake of simplicity, is warming the French press. If you have time (and presence of mind) in the morning, heat the water to boiling and rinse out the French press with hot water to warm it.
- Use a Carafe: If you are not going to drink the coffee immediately, don't leave it in the French press, where it will continue to sit on the grounds and get bitter. Pour into a thermal carafe to keep it hot.
More Tips on Making Great Coffee
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Updated from post originally published April 2010.