How to make a great french press coffee

As coffee brewing methods go, the French press, or cafetière, is one of the easiest and most elegant options out there. It’s composed of a tall, cylindrical beaker and a multipurpose lid with an attached plunger and round, tightly-fitted mesh filter. 

french press pouring coffee into two glasses

Table of contents

How does a French press work?French press vs other methods of making coffeeFrench press vs pour-overFrench press vs coffee machinesFrench press vs espressoWhat you’ll need Step by step instructions for making a great cup of coffee with a French pressTroubleshooting tips

How does a French press work?

The French press works by steeping coffee grounds—or loose leaf tea—in boiled water for a set amount of time. This steeping process, also known as extraction, is what determines the strength and complexity of the final brew.

After the prescribed steeping time, about 4 minutes, the filter acts as a strainer within the vessel, separating the grounds from the brewed coffee. A French press will generally yield anywhere from two to eight—or even twelve—cups of coffee, depending on the size. 

The standard coffee-to-water ratio is generally 3 tablespoons of coffee to each cup of water. The amount of coffee can of course be adjusted to personal preference, but you’ll want to maintain enough room in the carafe for the water to work, and to avoid a muddy brew.

French press vs other methods of making coffee

Compared to other brewing methods, French press coffee makers result in a stronger, more flavorful cup of coffee with a more substantial mouthfeel.

French press vs pour-over

With a drip or pour-over coffee, boiling water simply passes through grounds held in a filter, usually paper, which ensures the grounds never come into prolonged contact with the brewed coffee. This means a lighter bodied liquid and cleaner mouthfeel, but it can mean a weaker flavor profile.

French press vs coffee machines

Coffee machines are an even lower-maintenance choice than the French press, but many coffee-makers lack temperature regulation—meaning coffee grounds are blasted indeterminately with scorching water. The finished brew is then held in a glass pot over a warmer, which continues to heat the compounds to a point of deeper bitterness.

French press vs espresso

A freshly-pulled shot of espresso is an example of how a finer grind and short exposure time leads to a small amount of strongly flavored coffee. A French press slows this process down, meaning a cup of French pressed coffee contains more concentrated caffeine than a single shot of espresso.

What you’ll need

  • Coffee beans. If you’re making a ritual out of it, it may as well be good coffee. A French press has the power to reveal nuance you may not have noticed before, so try it with a favorite blend or particularly expressive roast.

  • Coffee grinder. Unless you’re using pre-ground coffee, you’ll need a grinder to achieve the right texture. 

  • Kettle. A kettle with a digital thermometer isn’t required, but will allow for even more brewing finesse. Otherwise, any mechanism for heating water will work. 

  • A French press. They’re available in glass or stainless steel, in single-serve or family-sized capacities.

  • A measuring spoon. For exact ratios, keep a tablespoon or coffee scoop handy.

  • A long-handled spoon. You’ll use a spoon to give the grounds a quick stir in the initial stage of brewing before they begin to settle.

Step by step instructions for making a great cup of coffee with a French press

  1. Grind the coffee. Grind size is a matter for debate in the coffee community. The French press is traditionally paired with coarse grinds, which allow for a slower, measured extraction of the bean’s compounds. Fine grounds simply speed that process up, risking over-extraction, and bitterness. Coarse grinds should still have larger flecks of bean intact and a pebbly texture. 

  2. Fill with water. The ideal water temperature for a French press is a step below boiling, at around 200ºF. Overly hot water can scorch grounds and lead to a bitter flavor—airport coffee, anyone?—and too-cool water won’t draw out all the flavor compounds. Pour hot water over the grounds, filling all the way to the top line.

  3. Stir. Give the mixture a few gentle stirs with a spoon to evenly expose the grounds to the hot water.

  4. Let sit. Secure the lid to the top of the carafe, leaving the plunger pulled all the way up. Let the coffee steep for 4 minutes. 

  5. Press. When the time is up, gently, slowly press the plunger down until the filter has completely tamped down the grounds on the bottom of the carafe. Pour into coffee cups right away: The longer the brew sits, the more bitter it becomes.

Troubleshooting tips

It’s early, you haven’t had your coffee yet—even the simple French press can go awry. Here’s what to do if:

  • You notice grounds floating around your cup. A French press with a faulty or damaged filter will sometimes allow grounds to escape into the steeped brew. Invest in a high-quality brand if you can, and if you come across a press at a thrift store, inspect the state of the filter. If it’s a persistent problem but you’re not looking to replace it right away, you can also add the extra step of pouring your coffee through a small fine-mesh strainer. 

  • You’re pouring, but nothing’s coming out. The inner portion of the French press lid is solid most of the way around, except for one portion with thin slits. Simply rotate the lid until the slits align with the open spout, and pour freely.

  • Your coffee tastes gritty, not creamy. If there aren’t full grounds floating in your cup, but the overall experience is a little...crunchy, try starting with a coarser grind and sticking closely to a standard coffee-to-water ratio. A French press filter contains the grounds at the bottom of the carafe, but it is still permeable: As leftover coffee continues to sit, smaller particles of sediment may begin to cross that barrier. Pour any second helpings carefully, allowing any build-up to settle to the bottom or sides of the carafe. 

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