25 November, 2008

Commentary on French Press technique and instructions

This is a bit of an experiment to see if proper blog titling will get lots of traffic. However, I do want to talk to you about the French Press. I will resist the temptation to write a blog about newspapers in Paris, since I don't think that's why you're here. But that might be amusing.

So... The French Press.

Just a short year ago, I probably would have scoffed at the notion of my owning a French Press (I am going to cease capitalizing it, as of now, because I am not sure I need to do it, and because it's a pain). Just two short years ago, okay three, I didn't even drink coffee. And I'm 40. So I guess I was a little bit behind the curve, in terms of rituals and behaviors (resisting the urge to go on tangent to explain why I started drinking coffee).

So... I am not sure who it was that first popularized the french press in my life, but I think it might have been Denise, because I recall my french press purchase from Ikea occurring in her company. So it stands to reason that this is how it came about. Prior to that, I only had a vague sense of what one even was, or why one would want to use it. Denise gave me the basic lesson of how to do it, and she also told me about why I would want to grind the beans fresh, rather than buy already-ground beans (though I did not originally listen to her).

The instructions for the french press use were modified extensively by Mandy, who had been taught by her ex-boyfriend, "Jafar" (whom I refer to as "Babbar"). His procedure seemed ridiculously idiosyncratic. It went something like this:
  • Put the ground coffee in the press
  • Add the water
  • Stir
  • Wait exactly 3 minutes. Not 4. Not 2. Most definitely not 5.
  • With your spoon, break the surface of the film on top of the liquid
  • Wait another minute
  • Press
  • Pour immediately

Now, a lot of this procedure I can understand. The part that I think is flat-out superstition is the breaking the film with the spoon (not stirring again, mind you - it's all about disrupting that film). I suppose if this were some type of chromatography experiment, I could understand it, but this is coffee, for heaven's sake.

So, regardless, I carried out this nonsense.

And one thing I repeatedly noticed about my coffee was the following: It was always bitter, and it was always extremely opaque-looking, and the addition of milk or cream did not nearly change the color as much as it would at any coffee shop I have ever visited.

And there lies the issue about the coffee beans and grinding. When I bought my coffee, it was ground too fine. It was ground for drip, where it will be in a filter. And this is NOT what you want for french press because the press does allow things to get through, so-to-speak, if they are too small. And that explained everything that was going wrong with my coffee.

So I decided it was time to graduate to the next level, which was to buy a grinder. And I did some reading online, and discovered that there are "blade grinders" and there are "burr grinders" and that if you want your coffee to be fabulous, you need to use a burr grinder, which will cost you between $80 and $200. If you want your coffee to be like the peasants in France would drink, well, then you can use a blade grinder. I quickly decided that I would do the blade grinder for a few logical reasons. First, whatever I bought would be better than the current process of buying it pre-ground. I could now control the degree of grinding. And I also will benefit from the "freshness" factor that the coffee snobs also talk about in all their blogs and websites. I kid you not, I have seen people say that if you do not get the ground beans into the liquid within five seconds (i.e. if you can smell the coffee) then it is too late, and your beans are spoiling. To that assertion, I say that if you can taste that difference, you have some serious problems for which there are plenty of medications out there.

The other reason I decided to do the blade grinder is because I figured it makes more sense to spend $20 on a Hamilton Beach (that matches my stainless steel and black kitchen appliances!) and see if that makes me coffee that I can live with before I go out and drop $200 on some sort of Bosch or DeLonghi nonsense.

I'm happy to report that I now have coffee that turns the correct color when you add milk, and does not cause instantaneous colon explosion. However, I do need to work on the "how long to let it sit before pressing" issue, because now that the grind is less fine, the coffee is not nearly as strong. I've already upped it to 7 minutes, without ill effects, and am not sure if I've gone far enough.

Also remaining is the decision about how much ground coffee to use. My 1 Liter press actually produces only about 28-30 ounces of coffee, if you fill it to the 1 inch from top level. That's two nice big cups. I have found that 10 level tablespoons of ground coffee seemed to be about the right amount. The instructions out and about seem to suggest 2 tbsp per 6 ounces, which would be about the same 10 tbsp for the full press. So that seems about right.

I think the next thing I might need to do is get a better french press, because I suspect the Ikea one may not be mechanically optimal in terms of the tolerances and the mesh quality.

All of this is centered around a money-saving effort to not stop at the bakery or cafeteria every day and waste money on coffee that isn't as good as what I can make at home. But the question remains: How much will I end up spending as I become more and more obsessed with the process of making the perfect coffee? And in the end, will it be more money than buying coffee? I kind of doubt that. And there was also the benefit of supporting local businesses by giving them my patronage. Especially in this economy. But every time I went there, I would inevitably spend even more money on fattening things like scones and muffins (Edna, do not write a comment telling me that those are tasty treats!).

Okay, I've said all I can say about french presses.


  1. Personally, I wouldn't stress about it too much. I've been drinking coffee for years, made it professionally for a few and live and die by my French press in the mornings. Just get the grind, the time and the type of bean to your liking and it's all good. and $200 for a burr grinder. Not in my house!

    BTW- Not to dissapoint, I didn't find this post because of your excellent titling, but because my friend Dayna sent it to me. However, your blog might be my new favorite! I posted it on mine.

  2. My ex-husband and I got hooked on using a French press when we discovered it was the best coffee-making-camping-tool out there. Eventually it made its way into our kitchen (and into our hearts. awwwwwww....) damn applicance pushed him right out of there!

  3. Ahh,

    delicious French Press. I find the Grind is key, no less than 4 minutes, but no more than 6, and use a lot of coffee. For your one Liter I am talking at least 2 inches. If you got the Bodum stainless and glass one, you would fill it to where the bottom piece of steel wraps around. Now, if you don't want a gut buster, you need to move on to the sweet brew that is Toddy coffee. And yes, French Press and camping are an ideal marriage. I have a French Press specifically for camping.

  4. I like to add a tiny splash of COLD (not cool but fridge-cold) water after the first steep-phase; it does something. Then proceed with the pressing. To me, French Press is what you use when you don't have an espresso maker readily available, for whatever reason. But it is critical to never, ever have silt-sized particulate matter from the grinding step. Grinding fresh-roasted coffee is the single most important part for flavor, IMHO.