The French Press
Over the last few days I’ve had several people come up to me and ask me about how to use a French press. Using a French press is an excellent way to make coffee, as long as it’s done correctly. If you fail to do it correctly, it will be painfully obvious. It can come out too weak, it can come out too strong, with the strong flavors seeming rather muddy, or there can be catastrophic failure such as I have had in the past by pushing the plunger down too hard and breaking out the bottom of the carafe. That being said, this is not rocket science and with some basic protocols anyone can make excellent coffee with a French press.
With the French press you basically have two components. Technically you could break it down into smaller components but we’ll cover that when we talk about how to clean a French press. The two parts are the carafe and the plunger. The carafe is the glass jar which the coffee brews in. The plunger part is a screen filter which acts in many ways like the screen filter in a drip coffee maker. What sets the French press apart from the drip coffee maker is the fact that all the water is in contact with all the grounds for the duration of brewing, versus the water just passing through the grounds as it is in a drip pot. The way that I look at it is like being a visitor to another country. If I passed through a small town and I got out of my car to look around little bit, bought of a couple souvenirs and left, the town that I had just left would have had very little impact on me. However, if I were to stay in that little town for a month, being completely immersed, its impact on me would be much greater. Fully immersed coffee grounds have a stronger impact on water in the same way.
Choosing the right coffee for your French press is where the fun begins–at the least for me it is. There are two basic things to consider: roast and coffee origin. You can take any coffee from around the world and roast it to fit into one of three basic categories: Columbian, French, or Italian. What sets these categories apart is roasting time and, in turn, the color of the bean. Columbian is the lightest of the roasts, then French, and finally Italian, with Italian roast being essentially burnt. Coffee origin is the next thing to consider. When selecting your coffee, Ethiopia is the motherland of coffee, followed by Mocha. It was there that coffee was originally cultivated and became what we know it to be today. I would suggest starting off in these two regions and working your way out from there. Most roasters tell you what to expect on the bag, so be sure to look. Tastes and flavors can range from creamy and mild to wine like and fruity. You can even buy wood-fire roasted beans that add a whole other dimension to the coffee.
It is very important to understand that water temperature needs to be at around 180f— in celsius this is whatever the number is across from the 180f mark on your thermometer. In a pot you can tell that the water is around 180f when bubbles form on the bottom of the pot and steam is rising. When the little bubbles start popping on the bottom, the water is close to 190f. This 180 temperature is important because of what are known as volatile compounds. Volatile compounds are what coffee is all about; they are what give coffee its flavor. You want to keep as many in the coffee as possible. It’s a balancing act of enough heat to release flavor, but not so much that the flavor released just evaporates away. And above 180f, that is what happens. In the kitchen the rule is, whatever you are smelling you’re not tasting. The more delicate an ingredient the less cooking time it has, or the lower the temperature it is cooked, or both. So the game that we play with coffee is to have the water hot enough to extract the flavors and tastes but not so hot that the steam runs away with them.
Another aspect that we need to take into consideration is the size of the grind. I have always have been a proponent of a larger grind, even in my drip coffee makers. I used to have my coffee roasters add about a half ounce to my prepackaged coffee, and have them grind it larger. They would look at me like I was crazy until they tried it themselves. In a drip machine, too small of a grind promotes channeling, which makes the coffee taste muddy. Muddy is a term used to describe that the coffee has no real discernible characteristics. All those fancy descriptions just disappear and you spent $12.00 for fair trade, free-roaming, organic, coffee handpicked by left handed Eskimos for nothing. So keep in mind the smaller the grind the shorter the time. If you are using a grind that is similar to espresso it will only take about 35-40 seconds – I don’t know what that converts to in metric. I like to grind coffee to about the size of that annoying egg-shell that falls into the bowl when you crack an egg on the rim, and no matter how you try to fish it out it keeps escaping, so you make your omelet with it in anyway. At this size I will let it steep for four minutes.
So here is my method: place your water on the stove, then grind your coffee to your desired size; I prefer larger. Put 1 heaping tablespoon of coffee for every 6 oz of water. If you are using finer grounds that would mean 2 teaspoons. I then coat the grounds with cold water. Trust me on this, you will have better taste and flavor. When your water gets to 185f — remember you put cold water over your grounds –add the hot water. Place lid on your press, start timing 4 minutes then, after the time is up, press down the plunger. If it does not want to go down give it a quick stir then press lightly. Never use force because you can break out the bottom of your press. When the plunger pushes the grinds to the bottom, stop. You will need to fight the urge to squeeze the grinds on the bottom.
Alternative method: you will need 4 mason jars for this method. Day one take one jar and place 5T coffee in it fill it to the top and put the lid on, and place in the fridge. Day two put 5T coffee in a jar fill with water and put the lid on, and place in the fridge. Then shake jar one. Day three put 5T coffee in a jar fill with water and put the lid on, and place in the fridge. Shake jars one and two. Day four put 5T coffee in a jar fill with water and put the lid on, and place in the fridge. Shake jars one, two, and three. Take the first jar and press it in your french press. Heat your coffee in a pot or even in the microwave.