Morning Joe: How to Use a French Press Coffee Maker

The very phrase sends a tingle down the spine of coffee lovers everywhere, a tingle that’s equal part excitement and fear: French press coffee. When used properly, a French press coffee maker yields the perfect cup of Joe. Used poorly, though, it ruins the brew, sending coffee grounds swirling into the liquid and destroying both your beverage and your mood. Many a coffee enthusiast out there has never even tried a hand at the French press given all the device’s perilous reputation. (If you need more proof, just search “French Press Fails” on Youtube — there are way more than you might think.)

how to use a french press coffee maker aromatic brewed caffeine

But take heed, people, and take comfort: using a French press isn’t all that hard. Actually, it’s pretty easy, as long as you’ve got a steady hand and a bit of patience. Now, choosing the best coffee for a French press? That’s where a bit of expert advice can help.

But first…

What is a French Press Coffee Maker?

In case you needed another piece of evidence that life doesn’t make much sense, consider this: the French press coffee maker was first patented by an Italian man named Attillio Calimani. That was in 1929, though they would not become popular for more than another three decades. So why is it called a French press instead of an Italian press? In fact, Calimani essentially swiped a design that had been around for at least eighty years already, as a French metalworker and merchant had filed together for a patent for just such a device back in 1852.

It might seem odd that the French press took more than a century to catch on in the first place, but perhaps stranger still is the hardware’s popularity today. In an era of app-controlled smart coffee brewing stations that can whip up any number of multi-ingredient coffee beverages at the touch of a button or even with an oral command, many people still choose an elegantly simple, hand-operated coffee brewing device that mechanically separates grounds from water and requires careful ingredient measurement and brew timing on the part of the user.

how to use a french press coffee maker makeer

But maybe that’s the point, eh? While there’s nothing “smart” about a French press as we use the word in our ever-evolving, tech-oriented world today, there is something so much more refined about an entirely manual and rather inefficient process. Also, used well, a French press makes superlative coffee.

And now, after my digressions, here’s how to use a French press coffee maker.

How to Use a French Press

First, you need to make sure you have the right ratio of water to coffee (we’ll talk about the best coffee for French press brewing soon). I recommend about one ounce of ground coffee to sixteen fluid ounces of water (that’s about two generous tablespoons of coffee). Make sure the water is heated to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a good food thermometer (meat thermometers work great for this), bring water to a simmer then let it rest two or three minutes. But really, we recommend picking up a thermometer.

Scoop the coffee into the bottom of the press, then slowly pour in that 200-degree water and place the top of the device on, with the plunger raised all the way up. Now for some waiting.

man using french press
Guillermo Murcia/Getty Images

In my opinion, four minutes is the ideal brew time for good French press coffee, but you can pour a cup out after only two minutes and still enjoy decent extraction, especially if you went heavier on the java in the coffee-to-water ratio. Don’t try to make an extra strong cup by steeping the grounds longer, since after more than a dozen minutes, give or take, your brew will start to turn bitter and astringent. If you want stronger coffee, add more grounds (or make an espresso with these excellent espresso makers).

Finally, after those four minutes, slowly and with control, press the plunger down. Make sure to leave the plunger down as you pour out your beverage, and don’t jostle the plunger’s handle since that may send grounds past the screen and into your coffee — it would be a shame to ruin the brew mere seconds before you enjoy it!

How to Make French Press Coffee Step-by-Step

So you’re in a rush, huh? Then you probably should have read this part first. Here’s the quick and dirty:

  1. Place 2 tablespoons coarse ground coffee at bottom of the French press.
  2. Slowly pour in 16 ounces of hot (200 degrees F) water into the press and place the top on the unit.
  3. Let mixture brew for 4 minutes.
  4. Slowly and steadily press the plunger down, making sure to lower it straight down.
  5. Pour out your two cups of coffee and enjoy.

The Best Coffee to Use in a French Press

The best French press coffee is really whatever type of coffee you like the most, be it Colombia, Egyptian, or what have you. You could even decide to use the world’s strongest coffee, if that’s your thing, or indulge in one of the world’s five most expensive coffees.

What matters more than variety is the grind type. French press coffee makers work best with coarse grinds for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious: finely ground coffee is more likely to slip past the press’s filter and get into your drink. And who wants that?

man pouring coffee from french press
Shape Charge/Getty Images

The other reason coarse grinds are the best for French press brewing is due to the way the hot water permeates these larger bits of bean during the extended time the grounds and water spend together. Large grounds absorb more water than finer bits and subsequently release more flavor, yet they do not lead to the over-extraction common with finer grinds, thus the resulting brew is full-flavored without being acidic or astringent in taste. (On the other hand, a quick-brewing espresso requires an extra fine grind, and some bitterness is expected and desired.)

As for taste, I recommend a medium roast coffee. Darker roasts often have a more acidic profile, so lighter roasts are better for the long extraction period. Also, medium and lighter roasts usually have more caffeine, which is another bonus.

And with that, you now have all of the information you need to brew the best damn cup of French press that’s ever been pressed. It’s now time to get your caffeine on!

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