If you’re even peripherally aware of coffee then you’ll have heard of a French press, even if you’ve never used one. And there’s a good reason for that – it’s world famous. In this guide we’re going to teach you how to use a French press and make perfect coffee every time.
The French press is perhaps the most ubiquitous brewing method currently available. Its simplicity, functionality and affordability, make it one of the most popular ways of brewing delicious, complex coffee in the home.
A Short History of the French Press
With a name like the French press you’d be forgiven for thinking that this device was conceived of in France. In fact it, like espresso, is the result of Italian ingenuity. Patented by Milanese designer Attilio Calimani in 1929, the coffee brewing device underwent some fundamental changes before transforming into the classic design we know today.
The French press really took off in Europe after appearing in the Michael Caine film, The Ipcress File, in 1965. Its proliferation was further aided by the Danish homeware company Bodum, which still produces some of the best and most well known French presses today.
The French press goes by many different names. It’s called Stempelkanne in Germany, coffee plunger in South Africa and Australia, and cafetière in French.
Whatever you call it, we’re guessing you’re here because you’re interested in learning how to use a French press properly.
And with that in mind, let’s get stuck in.
French Press vs Other Brewing Methods: What’s Different?
At first glance it’s obvious that the French press is quite different from other brewing methods. While beakers and carafes abound in all manners of coffee production, the plunger is the part of the French press design that really stands out. And it’s the plunger that provides it with an effective and idiosyncratic method of producing coffee.
The plunger consists of a handle, a lid and coarse metal filter that separates coffee grounds from the liquid after extraction. This apparatus allows the natural oils present in the coffee bean to remain in the final brew, resulting in a rich and robust flavor and body.
Unlike other brewing methods, it allows for effortless separation of grounds from brew, and complete control over brewing variables simultaneously. The brewer is able to control precisely the amount of coffee and water used, as well as the time the mixture spends steeping.
For most other brewing methods such as pour over, the Aeropress and drip coffee, the extraction occurs as water is poured through the grinds. With the French press, however, the grinds are submerged and integrated with the water, and allowed to steep for several minutes. This complete immersion allows for a much more complete extraction, oils included, and ultimately a richer, stronger and more complex final brew.
Because of this immersion extraction method, the type of grind used for the French press is slightly different too. Whereas other methods favor finer or coarser grinds, the ideal grind for a French press is medium coarse.
This gives the coffee particles a larger surface area, allowing more flavors to be extracted. If the grind is too fine you run the risk of transforming your final brew into a thick sludge. Too coarse and you’re not going to achieve an adequate extraction.
This complete immersion is ultimately an advantage that the French press has over other methods, as it allows for a uniform and consistent extraction. This downside, however, is over-extraction can easily occur, resulting in an extremely bitter brew.
It’s therefore important to keep an eye on the time to ensure you don’t leave it steeping for too long.
For a precise breakdown on how French press compares to other brewing methods, check out these articles we’ve written:
What You Need to Make French Press
The French press’ popularity is due in part to its simplicity. You don’t need a fancy gooseneck kettle, disposable filters or even electricity to make a decent brew. In its most basic form you can make delicious French press with nothing more than coffee and water.
That being said, if you’re a true coffee geek
then you’ll know there are always ways to take it to the next level. Many
brewers appreciate that the French press gives you full control over all the
brewing variables. This means that with the right tools you can easily fine
tune your brew to your exact specifications.
- Hot Water
- Ground Coffee
- French Press
- Scale for measuring
- Burr grinder
When learning how to use a French press you’re ideally going to want to be running an optimal setup, complete with a scale, grinder, timer and thermometer. Yielding these tools correctly will allow you to create a significantly higher quality cup of coffee.
Let’s take a closer look at what these tools can do for you:
A scale will allow you to both precisely measure your coffee grinds as well as the exact amount of water you need. You don’t exactly need aerospace technology, but you do want something functional and accurate. Some of our recommendations include:
A good grinder is imperative for all styles of coffee. Grind size is one of the most important factors when it comes to producing great coffee, and a good grinder is going to facilitate that.
For consistent, uniform grinds every time, we recommend eschewing blade grinders altogether. While convenient, they lack any sort of specificity and will hack your beautiful beans into an uneven mess. Where possible, always stick to a burr grinder.
For a more in-depth look at the best grinders for the job, check out these two articles we wrote about the subject:
As we mentioned above, the amount of time that your grinds steep for is going to have a big impact on the final flavor of your coffee. It’s therefore important to know exactly how long the mixture has been brewing.
Keep it simple. Many scales will come built in with its own timer, but if it doesn’t or you don’t have a scale, simply use your mobile device instead.
A thermometer ensures your water is the perfect temperature before it gets added to your grinds. If you’re someone who likes a latte or cappuccino, you can also use it to ensure that your milk doesn’t burn. We can recommend the following:
French Press Grind: How to Get it Right
Before we get into a detailed breakdown of how to use a French press, we’re going to lay out some things you should know beforehand. Specifically, we’re going to take a look at the ratio of water to coffee when brewing with a French press.
A French press commonly comes in 12oz and 34oz varieties, enough for three or eight cups of great, strong coffee respectively.
But what is great coffee? For that matter what is strong coffee? These questions all largely depend on your taste and proclivities, so we’ve provided a table to help determine what the correct ratio is for you.
|Strength||Coffee needed for 12oz (3-cup)||Coffee needed for 34oz (8-cup)|
|Weak||18g or three tablespoons||55g or nine tablespoons|
|Medium||23g or four tablespoons||68g or 11 tablespoons|
|Strong||30g or five tablespoons||89g or 15 tablespoons|
If you’re using a 12oz, or three cup, then you’re going to need 300g of water.
As for a 34oz – or eight cup – then you’re going to need 900g of water.
If you’re just a casual coffee drinker then you’re probably never going to want to make your coffee stronger than medium. However, if you’re someone who needs equal parts caffeine to nitrogen in your bloodstream to simply get out of bed, then go for strong.
Just be warned that strong French press rivals espresso when it comes to caffeine content… and might make you vibrate.
How To Use French Press: Step by Step
You’ve gathered all your ingredients and equipment and you’re ready to learn how to use a French press. Awesome.
Below we’re going to demonstrate how to make the perfect brew under optimal conditions with the most sophisticated equipment. B don’t worry if you’re not kitted out! We’re also going to show you how to use a French press if all you have are the bare essentials.
Getting a French Press
First thing’s first – you need a French press. We could go into a lot of details about what makes a great French press, but for simplicity sake we’re just going to list our favorites:
For the purposes of this tutorial all of the measurements used are for the 34oz or 8 cup French press. If you decide to use a smaller-sized French press, simply alter your measurements according to our water-to-coffee ratio table above, but the methodology stays the same.
And without any further ado, here’s how to make the ultimate French press:
Heating water is the most time consuming part of the brewing process, so it’s advised to do it first. You can use any conventional kettle to do this; all it needs to do is be able to bring water to the boil. The ideal temperature for water should be between 195 and 205 degrees fahrenheit.
If you have a kettle with variable temperature control, then simply set it to heat your water to 200 degrees. If you’re just using an ordinary kettle, simply boil then water and let it rest for between three and four minutes. This should bring it down to roughly the desired temperature, although if you’re still not sure then use a thermometer.
It’s worth noting that water makes up the majority of your final brew, so it’s worth using the very best you can get your hands on. Filtered water with a high mineral content is ideal, but normal tap water will still work if none is available.
Measure and Grind your Coffee
If you’re using pre-ground coffee (which we don’t recommend) then you can go ahead and skip the grinding phase. If you’re grinding your coffee, however, now is the time to get out your scale and grinder.
Using the above water-to-ratio table, determine how strong you want your coffee according to the size of your French press, then measure out your coffee beans. Next, grind the beans to a medium to medium coarse consistency.
Preheat your French Press
This step isn’t crucial, but it does go a long way towards retaining heat and ensuring that no foreign particles make their way into your final brew. Simply add boiling water to the French press before use, swirl it around then dispose of it.
This will ensure that the glass of the beaker will be at the same temperature as the water you’re about to add. It will also break up any and get rid of old loose coffee particles if the French press hasn’t been used in a while.
Add Grinds and Hot Water
Take the coffee you ground earlier and add it to the beaker. Shake the grounds once or twice to ensure that they coat the bottom of the French press evenly. Then place the carafe on your scale and set it to zero.
Next, use a small amount of hot water to wet the grinds. This is a process called “blooming” and it allows excess carbon dioxide to escape before the actual extraction begins.
Once your water has reached the optimal temperature, pour it into the carafe quickly, taking care to saturate all coffee grounds. Use the scale to ensure you add 900g of water (for a 34oz French press). If you don’t have a scale, simply decant the water into a measuring cup and then add it to your French press.
Stir and Steep
Using a stirrer, gently agitate the water to ensure that the coffee grounds are fully integrated with the water. Place the plunger on top of the beaker but don’t press it just yet. As a general rule, you should always place the plunger on top of the beaker when you’re not actively using it to retain heat.
Next, set your timer (or phone) to 3:30 and begin the countdown. Remember, be very precise here. If your coffee steeps for too long, you run the risk of over extraction and a very bitter final brew.
Once the mixture has steeped for three and a half minutes, gently press the plunger until the metal filter touches the bottom of the beaker.
Gauge the resistance during this process; it should put up a moderate fight. If there’s no resistance then your coffee is likely too coarse, if it’s difficult to plunge then you ground it too fine.
Again, this isn’t a crucial step. You could stop here and already be enjoying your French press. However, decanting your final brew will prevent further extraction from those grounds trapped at the bottom.
This could be a problem if you’re using a 34oz French press. The high volume of coffee being produced means that some brew is likely to sit in the beaker for some time. Decanting your coffee separates it from the grounds, halting extraction, and maintaining a uniform and unchanged flavor profile.
Pour and Enjoy
This step is pretty self explanatory. You’ve learned how to make some delicious French press, and now it’s time to taste the fruits of your labor. Enjoy!
Pressed for Time
Is this your first time learning how to use a French press? Is so, let us know what you think below! Does it know the socks off your everyday cup of Joe or is it simply meh?
Martin Stokes hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. He enjoys writing about all manner of things and can quote lines from films like nobody’s business. He moved to Berlin in 2015 and is working tirelessly at broadening his repertoire of bad jokes.