Whether you received a French press as a homecoming gift, stocked up on one as an essential tool for your dorm room, or purchased one in an earnest attempt to make more coffee at home, most people have likely interacted with or even own a French press.
The French press is a staple, and is a generally affordable brewer whose international name helps dress up a deceptively simple technique: Pour hot water on top of ground coffee, let it sit, and press. There’s nothing complicated about the ubiquitous brewer, but to truly make a great cup of coffee, you must understand how it brews and what to look out for — and that’s not just limited to coffee (you can use it to strain tea leaves, make milk foam, and even strain stocks). Here’s everything you need to know to get the most out of your French press for coffee and beyond.
The ratio of water and coffee for the French press
When looking for a French press recipe, you might look for specifics, like the exact amount of coffee to use and the precise volume of water. Some recipes provide that, like our recipe for French press coffee from the 2010 World Barista Champion Michael Phillips. But some French press recipes (and any coffee recipe, for that matter) rely more on ratios — or the relationship between coffee to water — and it’s helpful to know this ratio so you can scale up or down. Whether brewing a single cup for yourself or brewing for a crowd, the ratio will stay the same, but the amount you brew changes. This is also helpful when considering the size of your French press: If a recipe calls for 600 grams of water, but your French press can only hold 400, you can use a ratio to adjust the recipe.
Most brewing recipes recommend using one gram of coffee to 16 grams of water (you’ll see this written out as a 1:16 ratio), but that’s not a hard and fast rule. “Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new recipes and make it your own,” says Iaisha Munnerlyn, Educator and Coffee Consultant at Tradecraft Coffee & Tea. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to make your coffee ritual yours; you enjoy the cup better.”
Although it’s helpful to start with a ratio, Munnerlyn cautions sticking to a specific one. “I think people often get stuck on recipes and ratios, so I love advice encouraging people to experiment and taste until they find something they like.”
So feel free to experiment! Start with a 1:15 or 1:16 ratio (our recommended recipe uses a 1:15 ratio), and see what you think. If the coffee tastes too intense or overpowering, try a ratio with more water, like 1:17 or 1:18. If you want your coffee to pack more punch, try a more concentrated ratio.
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For this recipe, we’ll assume you’re using a 1-litre French press, the most common size brewer. However, feel free to adjust the numbers using your preferred ratio of coffee to water.
- Boil Water: You’ll want to use fresh, filtered water and boil more than you need to brew since you’ll be using some to preheat the brewer. For this recipe, we’ll ask you to use 600 grams of water plus more for preheating.
- Warm the Press: Most French presses are made of glass or steel, which need to be preheated so the temperature stays consistent during brewing (water that isn’t hot enough might not extract, or pull out the flavour, from the ground coffee). You don’t need much water to preheat — pour a few grams, put your hands around the French press, and wait until it feels warm.
- Measure and Grind Your Beans: Your preferred ratio is up to you—for this recipe, we’re going 1:15, so we’ll grind 40 grams of coffee. But you can adjust to taste (if you want to do a 1:16 ratio, use 37 grams of coffee). Another thing to consider is grind size. Many recipes call for a coarse grind, but that’s also up to you. “I believe you can always tweak a recipe to fit your liking, and that goes for the grind settings as well,” says Munnerlyn. “At the end of the day, it’s for you to drink.” In the pictures above, we used a Fellow Ode grinder set at 8 (their grinder has a dial between 1-11), so not the coarsest setting — the grinds look about the size of flaky sea salt.
- Bloom Your Beans: Pour all your water and let the coffee and water sit for about a minute. This is called blooming the coffee — allowing some of the CO2 in the beans to degas. CO2 can interfere with extraction, so you want to let some of the gasses in the beans escape.
- Sit and Stir: As you bloom, the coffee will form a crust on top, so take a spoon or wooden stick and stir the slurry — this also helps to break up any dry clumps and ensure the grounds are saturated evenly. Put the plunger on top (but don’t press) to keep the water hot, and let sit for three more minutes.
- Press and Decant: Press the plunger to filter the brewed coffee from the grounds. If you can, decant the coffee into a separate container or immediately into mugs — the grounds at the bottom will continue to “brew” if the coffee is left in the French press.
Equipment you’ll need
A French Press
You can use any French press you can find, but we tested some industry favourites and landed on the classic Bodum Chambord as our top pick for its simplicity and elegance. If you’re looking to play with filtration (most French presses have a pretty standard mesh filter), look to the Espro line of presses, which we also love. Their plungers feature a much finer mesh filter meant to capture the soot and fine particles that can sometimes be left behind in a French press.
A Burr Grinder
Grinding fresh grounds ensures you preserve all the aromas and flavours a bean offers. That’s especially true for a French press, where some of the coffee’s oils contribute positively to the mouthfeel but can muddle some flavours, so a precise burr grinder is essential versus a blade grinder where the particles can come out all different sizes. While we used a Fellow Ode grinder for this experiment (a grinder we also love and named on our list of best grinders), we like the Baratza Encore for its range of grind settings and affordability.
An Electric Kettle
One perk of a French press is that you don’t need to be precise with how you pour. Many coffee recipes call for a gooseneck kettle to ensure precision, but you can use any hot water kettle for a French press. We found during our testing that we like the Zwilling Enfinigy for its cool touch feature and hold feature, so if you walk away from the kettle, it’ll still be hot for up to 30 minutes.
Other uses for your French press
If you zoom backwards and look at the French press as a tool, it’s a device that can filter things. Loose-leaf tea connoisseurs might be familiar with tea brewers that look very similar to French presses, so if you’re looking to make it a multitasker, follow the steps for brewing tea on your French press. You can also use the brewer to filter stocks and broths, but be diligent about cleaning afterwards if you go this route.
Another clever way to use a French press is to froth milk. Pushing the plunger up and down introduces air into the milk, which creates the foam you’re used to seeing on your favourite drinks like lattes and cappuccinos. It takes some muscle, but you’ll see the milk expand and get bubbly after a bit.
Troubleshooting French press coffee
French press coffee is unique in that there’s no paper filter — it’s a full immersion method, and the plunger serves as the filter at the end of the brewing process. “No filter needed! All you need is hot water, a French press, and ground coffee,” says Munnerlyn. “It also allows more room to control the end result because you can play around with different variables. i.e., grind settings and water temperature.”
But one of the hiccups when brewing French press coffee is that most people leave their coffee in the French press after plunging, but, as Munnerlyn notes, “the longer you have the coffee steeping, the more bitter flavour notes you pull from the grounds.” Pour your finished coffee into a decanter or directly into mugs.
Another thing to consider is the coffee you’d like to brew. Like grind settings, this is a matter of choice and preference, but one way to think about brewing generally is to think about flavour clarity and body on two ends of a spectrum. Brewers with heavy-duty filters (think the three-layer filters on the Chemex) offer more flavour clarity, so floral, light-roasted coffees tend to shine.
On the other hand, because of its metal filter, a French press allows oils and sediment to end up in your cup, making for a unique and pleasant body but might mask the flavour. “Bold and dark [roasted coffees] hold up so well in a French press,” says Munnerlyn. “Get a bit fancy and add some milk. Perfection!”
Also — and we cannot emphasize this enough — clean your French press. If your coffee is ever tasting rancid or weird, it’s likely because it hasn’t been cleaned properly, and we’d estimate that most brewing problems with a French press are due to dirty filters and old oils.
Ashley Rodriguez has been a barista for almost ten years and has worked as a manager, trainer, and coffee writer. She’s also written product reviews for websites like Serious Eats, The Kitchn, and Forbes, and she currently works as the managing editor for Fresh Cup, a coffee trade publication.
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
(Credit for the hero and featured image: Helena Lopes/Unsplash)
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Absolutely! Try it out! There's nothing inherent to a French press, meaning you have to use one type of grind setting, so give it a whirl and see what you think. One reason many recipes recommend using a coarser grind is the longer brew time of the French press. The longer coffee interacts with water, the more flavours you'll pull out of the grounds, but there's a limit when the flavours go from pleasant to bitter (that's why you see very fine grind settings for quick brew methods, like espresso, and medium ones for 2-3 minute brews, like a V60 or Chemex).
Answer: "Stronger" might be the wrong word. Technically, your coffee will get "stronger" because it'll pull more out of the coffee as it sits, but there's a sweet spot where you pull just the right mix of soluble components before bitterness starts to creep in. That's why you want to decant your coffee after brewing.
Answer: Most French presses can be cleaned by hand with soap and water and occasionally should be cleaned with a dedicated coffee cleaner to lift oils and water scale buildup. But more people need to take apart and clean each component of the plunger. There are three pieces to most plungers, which act as the filter for the French press. Because there's no paper filter, these pieces can easily get caked with oils and spent grounds. Make sure to take these pieces apart every few brews and soak them in a dedicated coffee cleaning solution.