How to use a coffee plunger, or French press

A coffee plunger makes a unique brew that you can’t really get from any other brewing method. You might know the plunger as a French press, a coffee press, or even a cafetière. Whatever you call it, it makes a silky, full-bodied drink that brings forth flavors often forgotten by drip or pour-over coffee.

To many people coffee is a necessity of life, without which we couldn’t possibly get up in the morning (and you wouldn’t want to see us try). To others, coffee is a diverse array of different beans, brews, and artistry, enjoyed everywhere from cafés in Paris to your own kitchen, all boiled down into a transcendent trans-Atlantic metaphor for multiculturalism and community. 

Whatever form your love of coffee takes, whether you prefer French press, Italian espresso, Brazilian beans and anything in between, coffee can lift you up—if you know how to make it properly.

And if a coffee plunger is your tool, we’re here to help.

How to choose a coffee plunger

Let’s answer this important question first: What characteristics make the perfect coffee plunger?

Glass or stainless steel

You’ll need to choose between glass and stainless steel coffee plungers. The former is great because it allows you to watch the coffee while it brews, letting you keep a close eye on the coffee grounds as you plunge them. They also look quite elegant. 

glass french press
A glass French press looks great on your table.

That said, they are naturally more fragile than stainless steel options. Most glass French presses like the Bodum have metal or plastic braces for protection, while stainless steel coffee plungers are more durable.

Plunger and handle

You’ll also want to give some thought to the design of the plunger and handle. The plunger (or press) is what you use to keep the coffee grounds out of your coffee, and it’s usually topped with a knob that’s going to get to know the palm of your hand quite well. The handle helps keep the carafe structure steady while you press the plunger down into the cylinder. You’ll need to make sure your coffee plunger’s handle is sturdy and heat-resistant.

Filter screen

Make sure your French press has a good screen (a mesh metal filter of sorts), which helps separate coffee from the grounds before you pour the latter into your mug. 

French press coffee filter
The filter on a French press is a metal mesh screen attached to the bottom of the plunger. (© Joseph Robertson | Creative Commons)

The best are made with 18-8 stainless steel, which refers to the percentage of chromium and nickel, respectively. More nickel means less corrosion, and eight per cent is considered good quality.

Capacity

Size matters when it comes to coffee plungers. Smaller French presses will typically allow you to make three or four cups of coffee, whereas a larger coffee plunger could make eight to 12 cups. There are even single-cup plungers.

How to make plunger coffee

Now that we have established what to look for in a coffee plunger, let’s sketch out how to actually use one. Sure, the basic idea is clear: You press down the plunger and you’re left with coffee, but how does it actually work?

1. Heat the water

Heat your water to around 195-205 F, which is a little ways off the boil. You can remove it when it seems like it’s just about ready to boil. If you leave it too long and it does actually boil, just remove it from the burner and let it set for 2-3 minutes and it will be fine.

2. Preheat the carafe

First, it’s not a bad idea to multitask and preheat your coffee plunger’s carafe while measuring out the beans. Doing this at the same time will help cut down the amount of time it takes to get your coffee brewed, which is always a good thing when you’re in a rush in the morning!

3. Grind the beans

When you grind the beans, you want them to be coarse—the size of that chunky rock salt you see on top of bagels. The mesh filters on coffee plungers have relatively large holes (compared with a paper filter), so if you grind too fine you could end up with quite a lot of sediment in your cup, not to mention a brew with a chalky mouthfeel. 

coffee grounds
A good coarse grind for plunger coffee. (© srslyguys | Creative Commons)

Also, small coffee grounds get extracted very quickly when steeped in hot water. The most bitter-tasting compounds in coffee usually take the longest to extract, but if the grounds are small they don’t take very long to come out. If you don’t want bitter coffee, don’t grind small!

Ideally, you should grind your beans just before brewing to get the best flavor. Grinding the beans more than 15 minutes before you brew them will give them more time to oxidize, which can diminish the flavor of your coffee.

How much coffee to put in a plunger

When you measure the coffee grounds for your coffee plunger, you’ll want to make sure you get the ratio right. The ideal coffee plunger ratio, using a 34-ounce (one litre) coffee press as an example, would be about 80 grams of beans (or 1 cup ground). For a 17-ounce (half-litre) press, you want 40 grams of beans, which is half a cup or eight tablespoons ground. Basically, however many ounces of water you’re using, use half as many tablespoons of ground coffee for a good, strong brew. Slightly less if you don’t want it too strong.

4. Bloom the grounds

Put the coffee grounds in the bottom of your carafe. If they are quite fresh, you might want to bloom them (we explain blooming here) by adding just enough water to get them all wet, then waiting 30 seconds. When they’ve stopped bubbling, top up the rest of the water and give it a stir to make sure the grounds are fully immersed.

Put the lid of the plunger in place, and depress the plunger only far enough so that it’s resting on the surface of the coffee. This helps insulate it, keeping heat and flavor from dissipating.

5. Steep

Now wait and let your coffee steep for a bit. As with tea, the question of how long to let plunger coffee brew can vary between different brews and blends. A good rule of thumb is that by the 4- to 5-minute mark, it should be sufficiently steeped for you to move on to the next step.

Experiment with this, though. If your coffee turns out too weak or sour tasting, you need either a slightly finer grind or more steeping time. Maybe a bit of both. Do the opposite if your coffee turns out too strong and bitter.

6. Plunge!

Now it’s time for the plunge, or press. After your coffee has steeped, press the plunger down firmly and steadily. Make sure it goes all the way to the bottom of the chamber.

You should feel some resistance when you plunge or press your coffee. That said, it shouldn’t be a battle. Too much resistance likely means the coffee grounds have been ground too fine, whereas not enough resistance likely indicates they are too coarse.

7. Drink

Not many coffee-plunging devices offer an insulated carafe, so you’ll want to drink the coffee promptly. If you have double-walled steel, like the Espro or the Frieling French press for example, then you’re good for a couple of hours.

And that is how to make plunger coffee! Having a coffee plunger or French press can make a big difference in your morning coffee preparation routine, and it’s relatively easy. Whatever type of coffee you prefer and whether you prefer it black, light with cream, or anything in between, a proper coffee press can help ensure that you can enjoy your coffee in the best possible manner.

Photo at top: © Don LaVange | Flickr

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