How to Make Perfect French Press Coffee

by Jenn on June 5, 2009

in Beverages,Breakfast,Dairy Free,Diabetic Friendly,Gluten Free

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If I am not making a latte, I am often making beautifully aromatic coffee with my French press.  I love using a French press – no counter-space required, no fancy machinery, just some hot water.  The average one will run you $20-$30, that’s it.  And in my opinion, using a French press correctly will result in a better, stronger, and tastier coffee than traditional filter/drip methods.  This is because you brew the coffee with the grounds free floating in your water, giving them as much contact area and time as possible to release their flavor into your drink.

Of course the first step to an awesome cup of coffee is awesome coffee beans.  Currently I have some coffee that my dad brought me back from a recent trip to Brazil.  I’m sorry, but no matter what you do with bad flavorless coffee, you just can’t magically make it become awesome.  However, if you have decent beans, it will make a huge difference.

Next you need to grind your beans if they are not already ground (if you can, buy whole beans and grind them fresh each time, because they will retain their flavor longer – pre-bought ground beans tend to lose flavor quicker).  Fill your French press with the ground coffee – my press tends to fill about 3 mugs worth and this is how much I fill mine 1-2 cm:

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Now all you need is some hot water, which is easy for me since I have a tea kettle that permanently lives on my stove.  Heat the kettle until the water is just starting to boil, and then pour over your coffee grounds.  Good coffee will develop a nice “crema” and some of the grounds will float to the surface.  A crema is typically associated with espresso brewing, but most everyone I know who uses a French press refers also to the crema formed by making their plain old coffee this way as well.  Crema refers to that foam that builds on the top layer of your coffee.  Let your French press sit like this for at least 5 but I typically let it go for closer to 10 minutes.  This will allow the flavor to develop in your coffee.

See the crema here – sometimes creamy will be more frothy, sometimes more foamy like this – I think that’s a function of the specific coffee you use:

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Once the grounds have steeped enough, push the plunger in the lid piece all the way down to push the coffee grounds down to the bottom.  Now when you pour your coffee it will be filtered from the grounds.  Just pour into your favorite mug and prepare like you normally would – cream, sugar, etc.  Yum!

I also use my French press for brewing loose leaf tea, because the filter is perfect for straining tea leaves after steeping!

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Janie Loves Macarons December 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Hey! Just wanted to chime in. I love coffee…and I only brew my coffee in a french press..unless im making espresso.

I would add one point, besides fresh QUALITY roasted beans being the key to a great cup.. You need a coarse grind for french press… otherwise you end up with mud.

If you can – pick up a decent burr grinder…you will be amazed at the difference!

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Steven Williams July 7, 2013 at 5:02 am

Well done, Janie… a coarser grind IS a necessity to minimize the familiar sludge we’ve all seen at the bottom of the cup when it’s made my someone that hasn’t read Jenn’s article. (please forgive my warped sense of humor. lol).

You might also be interested in a few of the suggestions i added below.

Thanks for your valuable input…. it DOES make a difference.

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Kona Coffee December 10, 2009 at 11:13 am

Thanks for acknowledging that it all begins with the beans … you can have the best, most expensive coffee maker in the world and if you have poor quality coffee, forget about it.

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Nivedita July 21, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Hello Jenn,
Do you stir at any time before pushing the plunger? I find that stirring improves flavor. However, I wonder if I lose some crema by doing so. Any specific tips to improvecrema? Thanks! Jealous of you Brazilian beans! :-)

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Jenn July 23, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Hi Nivedita – no I don’t stir it, but have to say I haven’t really experimented with that…

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Steven Williams July 7, 2013 at 4:52 am

Yes Nivedita!! Stirring DOES improve the flavor and actually is a vital but tiny step to making the “perfect” cup of French Press Coffee as Jenn attempted to share. Several GENTLE stirs helps the coffee release its essential oils and does produce a noticeably larger (albeit still not enough!! lol) amount of the coveted crema. You don’t want to stir it too vigorously or too much as the crema we all yearn for will “melt” … it doesn’t really melt but it does reinfuse the “frothy gold” back into the coffee. Gentle stirring also helps coax the grounds to fully blossom and extract it’s essence into the water instead of being buried in a mound at the bottom.

One of the reasons Jenn finds the flavor is improved by a longer wait period is because she isn’t stirring it. Furthermore letting the coffee steep for “closer to ten minutes” (cringing at the thought!!) will make the coffee notably more bitter as the bitter curve begins to dramatically escalate starting at about 5 minutes. It APPEARS to be a fuller flavor because without stirring it does take more time for there to be an infusion of flavor… but the tradeoff is bitterness.

One more vital step that was omitted in this instruction article on How to make “Perfect” French press coffee (laughing a little) was the addition of a small pinch of salt. SALT??? Yes, SALT!!! When Alton Brown first said this I couldn’t get to Google fast enough thinking THIS TIME (FINALLY) he was wrong… He was not wrong. Salt in brewed coffee has a long history and is a vital ingredient to give the coffee a smooth bitter free taste. (…and no, you cannot taste the salt and will have no clue that it’s there… other than your coffee will “magically” be smoother and less bitter.)

I would be remiss without a nod to Janie for her comment about the use of a coarser grind. She’s exactly right and it will allow you to enjoy the entire cup without having to stare at the sludge at the bottom of your coffee cup and trying to sip by avoiding it!

Since this article has only four comments in the past four years I probably wasted more time making some salient additions than will benefit anyone but the omissions in this instructional were significant and quite honestly needed to be addressed for posterity.

Jenn, I love your site but this one needed more research.

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Nivedita July 7, 2013 at 9:44 am

Steven, so glad to see followup and response to my questions. Thank you for taking the time!
Great to hear that I haven’t been remiss with stirring gently. Yup, I’ve noticed too, that vigorous stirring takes away some of the crema.
Guess what I’ve started to do over the past year or so – I’ve dispensed with the french press! I find that I lose crema in the plunger. Instead, I now brew in a small 8-12 oz. thermos. The kind you would take warm soup in to work for lunch. It helps retain heat over my 4.5 min brewing period (especially in cold weather). But, more importantly, when done brewing, I stir and just pour through a strainer. When the stars are aligned, I get the most crema this way.

Will try salt tomorrow morning. Thanks for mentioning that – I’d heard that a lot, but dismissed it as something for “lesser” coffee (beans and/or brew).

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Steven Williams July 8, 2013 at 3:45 am

You’re welcome, Nivedita. To be quite honest the longer I spent on my response, the more I felt like I was wasting my time so I appreciate your follow-up note.

I shared a laugh with you when you said “when the stars are aligned… I get the most crema.” Lol. I actually omitted what I do personally because I was trying to maintain the integrity of Jenn’s article about true French press… HOWEVER, I actually pour mine through a strainer also! Lol. We might be Coffee Soulmates!! Lol. (Just a little levity!)

Finally, I use very expensive beans for my coffee and yes the salt helps smooth the flavors of even a premium bean. When I officially decided to “do it” I’m such a creature of habit I finally had to put a post it note on my special coffee container before I could seem to remember to add the salt… probably because salt seems like such a foreign ingredient for making coffee! Even though it’s only a pinch, my first concern was that a refined palate could taste the salt which I now know isn’t possible. Secondly, I was so certain that Alton Brown was wrong that I Googled it extensively and was fascinated to learn that employees who have worked at locally famous coffee houses have done this as a “house secret” for YEARS!!! (I’m not entirely sure why it was such a big deal… the downside is I wasted a pot of coffee but true to my nature to research things I felt some sort of core instinct in my soul that this MUST be researched first! Lol). Anyway I do feel there is new level of smoothness and now feel it’s a must.

(The funny part of what I have shared on this site is for some reason I don’t mind sharing my brewing secrets with the world… but if we were friends in real life I would stand with my back to you and purposely block the view! Lol. Do I add salt? What? No way. Lol).

Enjoy!

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bababooey July 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Not a waste, Steven. I just purchased a French press and found this article while doing some research on how to get the most out of it. Thank you for your thoughts!!

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Steven Williams July 26, 2013 at 7:04 am

Thanks bababooey! You brought the total count up to about five that benefited. LOL. (I padded the numbers by a few hoping someone might have read it without commenting! lol).

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Santiago Manriquez January 21, 2014 at 4:04 pm

You can make that six now. I just bought a French Press a couple weeks back because a friend asked my wife and I to bring her one. The moment i saw it I thought it was the coolest thing and just had to buy one too. We ended up coming out with two French Pressers.

Needless to say, I’ve been an on and off coffee drinker and machine brewed coffee just tasted like coffee flavored water and was just meh. The moment i tried the French Press i was marveled by the taste and texture. I can’t wait for tomorrow so i can try adding the salt and improving the brew. Thanks for the tip.

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Steven Williams January 23, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Welcome to real coffee flavor, Santiago. Coffee flavored water is a pretty accurate description of fluid despensed from “drip” coffee makers! i put drip in quotes because i think they used the wrong word when decided on the name. if you see the STREAM of water that practically jets out of the top of a “drip” machine you can see how LITTLE time the water has to make contact with the grounds. Speed might be great in a lot of things but not for brewing a quality cup of coffee!! there is no time for the grounds in a “drip” machine to bloom… before it’s already done!! lol

Since most people understandably only have one pot for their machine… most people won’t be able to do my little drip maker experiment but if you did, you’d probably never use the machine again!! If you brewed half the pot on a drip maker in one pot and quickly changed to a new pot half way through the process, you would see the second pot is EXACTLY as you described above, Santiago!! brown colored water.. that looks mostly like WATER!!

Enjoy!

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Steven Williams January 23, 2014 at 4:43 pm

correction… *dispensed (ugh)

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Jason March 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Make that 7, thanks for the advice! I have been stirring to vigorously to make sure everything is mixed up. One thing I have found to get a bit better crema is the force used to “press” the coffee. I wouldnt’ recomend it with a full pot, but I use mine at work instead of the K cup machine so I make just enough for one 16 oz mug at a time. If I press quickly and with some force, I get a nice golden layer on the top of my coffee every time.

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Steven Williams March 17, 2014 at 10:03 am

That’s a BRILLIANT addition to this Thread, Jason… Thank you! I had neglected that IMPORTANT hint in my comments above and you’re 100% right. You’re also right, that you can’t have the carafe too full or you’ll have a mess… but a SWIFT push makes a huge difference in producing more Crema. Thanks again for improving the “advice” on this Thread, Jason!!

When it comes to Crema… more is better!

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