I wouldn’t consider myself a coffee snob by any means, but I am fairly up to speed on the different ways to make coffee. So I was surprised when I went camping recently and my friends introduced me to something called cowboy coffee, which I had never heard of before.
True to its name, cowboy coffee is a traditional way of making coffee, once used by cowboys out on the range. While the basic ingredients are the same as they would be for the coffee you make in the comforts of your kitchen each morning—coffee grounds and water—you can imagine that the step-by-step brewing method is quite different.
So whether you’re looking for a little more history on cowboy coffee, figuring out the best way to brew it when you’re out on the trail, or just stumbled onto this article by accident, let’s put on our cowboy hats and get into it!
What is cowboy coffee?
First, what exactly is cowboy coffee and where does it come from? When I started looking into it, I was surprised to learn that cowboy coffee actually has roots in American history, starting with cowboys on the trail. Because of this tradition, cowboy coffee is regarded by many as a nostalgic comfort drink that touches on American tradition and hearkens back to frontier days.
Cowboy coffee is appropriate for a range of situations—even if you’re not a cowboy—from camping out in the woods to just trying something new with your friends. By making cowboy coffee and teaching your friends to do the same, you can help preserve the history of this drink.
That said, it’s not the most common way to brew coffee because we have it easier these days. A lot of new kitchen gadgets have come on the market since frontier days. That’s not to say making cowboy coffee is difficult, of course. Cowboy coffee is a pretty basic way to brew your cup of morning joe. There just weren’t that many tools cowboys could rely on when they were out on the trail.
In general, any method of coffee brewing is essentially the process by which you use hot water to extract flavors and aromas from coffee beans or grounds. You can think about cowboy coffee like using a French press, but without a filter. It also has a few things in common with Turkish coffee.
How to make cowboy coffee
So to make this drink, all you need are three ingredients: coffee, water, and a heat source. I’m going to recommend a campfire for your heat source, but I’ll let you city slickers use an electric stove if you’re trying this at home. You’ll also need a pot to make the coffee in, and a mug to pour it into when you’re done. Let’s go through the process step by step.
Step 1: Get your campfire going and boil water
Assuming you’re out camping, you’ll likely prepare a campfire. You’ll need to get your water boiling to make the coffee, so make sure your campfire is roaring and good to go (safely of course) as a first step. If you’re not sure how to make a fire, we recommend following these instructions so that you’re doing everything safely and being mindful of the wilderness and ecosystem around you.
Once you have your fire going, place your coffee pot full of water over the fire on some logs or a grill and wait for it to come to a rolling boil.
Step 2: Measure your coffee grounds and water
While you’re waiting for the water to boil, measure your grounds. Aim for a coffee-to-water ratio that will give you the taste you want. On average, you’re going to need about two tablespoons of grounds for each cup of water in your pot, but feel free to bump it up or down a bit depending on your coffee strength preferences.
Step 3: Take the pot off the fire and let the hot water sit
Once the water is boiling away, take the coffee pot off your heat source and let the water cool down for 30 to 60 seconds. If it’s a chilly evening, 30 seconds should be enough but you can definitely let it sit for a little longer if it’s a warm summer night. This is important because coffee brews the best between 195 F and 205 F, and water has a boiling temperature of around 212 F at sea level. If the water is too hot then it will extract from the grounds too aggressively and your coffee will end up tasting bitter.
Step 4: Add ground coffee and stir
Once your water has cooled a bit, dump your grounds straight into the water and give everything a good stir. You can leave it covered or uncovered. Just let it sit for about two minutes.
After two minutes have passed and some of the grounds have started rising up while it brews, stir everything again and let it sit for another two minutes.
Step 5: Remove the grounds
Remember, because this is like using a French press without the filter, you have to find a way to keep the grounds out of your coffee when you drink it. There are a few different ways that you can do this:
- Option 1: Add a splash of cold water into the pot, which will cool the grounds and make them sink so that you can pour out the coffee easily. It’s probably the easiest method but it doesn’t work 100 per cent of the time.
- Option 2: Tilt the pot ever so slightly toward where you want to pour it out from so that it’s at a bit of an angle, and let it sit for about 3-5 minutes as the coffee cools. As this is happening the grounds will sink down and settle at the bottom. Pour gently.
- Option 3: Just let the coffee sit for a bit in the cool evening air. Coffee grounds will naturally sink when they cool and will sink quickly if the air around the pot is cold. If you don’t want to mix cold water into the pot and risk having cooler coffee, then you can uncover the pot for 5-10 seconds, put it back on, and wait about a minute for the grounds to sink naturally.
- Option 4: If you have eggshells left over from making eggs on the fire, you can break them up and sprinkle them into the grounds before you brew. The residue from the eggshells acts as a binding agent and can hold the grounds together, so they’ll sink together as well.
Step 6: Pour out your cowboy coffee and enjoy!
Slowly and carefully pour the coffee into your mug or thermos so that it doesn’t continue to extract from the grounds, and enjoy this classic drink!
Don’t worry if it doesn’t quite turn out the way you expect the first time you make it. This is definitely something that you can improve with experimentation.
Recipe notes to consider
A few more things to think about as you experiment with your recipe and process:
How will you grind your beans?
The finer you grind your coffee beans, the more quickly the hot water will extract the flavors from the grounds into your brew. So your brew time may have to decrease.
This also has implications when it’s time to pour, because smaller grounds may be more difficult to filter out of your drink. With bigger pieces, you can actually use a spoon to help keep them out of your cup. Tiny grounds will find a way around your spoon.
Another recipe note that I came across is adding a bit of salt into the coffee. You’ve likely been out sweating on the trail all day and your sodium could use a little replenishing. Salt, of course, is not something that people typically expect in their coffee but it is something that cowboys used to add. If you want the true experience, then this is something to consider. Otherwise, just sprinkling salt onto your eggs is perfectly fine in my book.
We hope you’re ready to get out into the wilderness with this new way of making coffee! Remember to explore responsibly and Leave No Trace on these traditional territories. You’ll be an expert at making the perfect cup of coffee in the wild in no time.