Wednesday, November 26, 2003


life with the cafetiƩre

making coffee in the french press — properly called the cafetiére — is still one of the most popular methods used today. in fact, i think it's gaining in popularity, as so many movies and tv shows now take care to place them in stylish kitchen sets to demonstrate how cool the protagonists are supposed to be.

but i get a lot of questions about it, so i'm just going to take this moment for a french press core dump. brace yourselves for the plunge.

the method has many advantages. for the most part, good presses are relatively inexpensive, nothing mechanical or electrical to fail. the popular bodum presses even now offer models with polycarbonate cylinders so you don't have to worry about breaking or chipping.

the high-style more expensive alessi presses seem to sell well too. if you want to get more features, there are insulated presses to retain heat, presses with a built-in heating element. . .all that.

this brewing method really highlights the body of any coffee, which to my mind is a plus, since body is one of the elements of coffee i most enjoy. of course, the drawback is that unless you are careful with your grind and technique, you might get a few grounds in your cup.

at my office, i do use the dread "whirly-blade" grinder, simply because a larger, more unfamiliar grinder would probably cause my employers to look at me more askance than they already do! you can make good press coffee with this grinder.

but it's really preferable to use a decent burr grinder. good burr grinders, like the saeco 2002 i have at home, grind more evenly. the more even the coffee particles are, of course, the more even the extraction. that means you'll get better tasting coffee, even when you're grinding coarse for the press.

another important component for great press coffee is correct water temperature. i keep a taylor instant-read stick thermometer around for determining this. i know most people have one of these at home nowadays.

the best water temperature for press coffee is between 195 to 205 degrees f. usually, press instructions say simply to use "water off the boil." i find this leads a lot of people to use too-cold water; they inadvertently let it sit too long.

remember, the water loses a lot of heat as you pour it through the air into the press. if in doubt, wield your thermometer!

practically, i find that if you turn the heat off the boiling water and get your ducks in a row, the water will be right temperature in a minute. many people wonder about that temperature range tho'!

some experts say that darker-roasted coffees taste better with water towards the cooler end; lighter roasts, higher. this is something you should experiment with for your own taste.

fill the french press no higher than the bottom of the top metal collar; you need room to press the screen down without splashing water out and burning your hand. 205 degree water is truly hot water! be careful; don't overfill.

and when you press, press slowly and evenly. . .if you have difficulty pressing, you've ground a little too fine. just draw the plunger up again, and press down again.

what are the other important implements for french press brewing, after the press itself, a good grinder, and a thermometer? they are but three: a wooden chopstick, an inexpensive timer, and a thermos.

the timer is obvious, i hope: you should let your coffee steep between 3 and 4 minutes. again, this you can adjust to your personal taste. the wooden chopstick is for stirring. stirring or turbulence is crucial in coffee brewing.

stir to ensure all the coffee is evenly wet and to promote better extraction. the thermos is for decanting the coffee. after the coffee has finished steeping/brewing, you want to get it away from the grounds.

if left in the press, the coffee will continue to interact with the grounds, which makes the coffee more bitter. so pour your coffee off into a thermos, if you can.

finally let's talk about the coffee itself. you always want to use the freshest coffee possible, and you want to grind it just before you use it, while the water is on the verge of boiling.

one of the great things about fresh coffee is that it blooms. when the hot water hits the freshly ground fresh coffee, the coffee releases a lot of natural carbon dioxide.

this is good — it proves the coffee is fresh. and so the coffee creates a lovely, moussy foam that shines with delicious coffee oils.

but very fresh coffee can bloom like a shaken champagne bottle! massive overflow! so pour the water in slowly and stir with your wooden chopstick to keep the bloom under control.

let the coffee steep a minute or two and then stir again. if you look closely, you'll see that very light particles of coffee may have been trapped at the top of the bloom. stirring helps get these pieces back into the liquid so you get better extraction.

now we have to address what seems in my experience to be the most common problem people new to the press have: how much coffee to use?

fortunately, there is one simple answer that will always give you excellent coffee: multiply the size of your french press by 0.057. this is the weight of the coffee you should be using. it's an easy piece of math if you have a calculator, and you only have to do it once, ever.

just take the result of this little calculation and weigh out the coffee properly. almost everyone has a little kitchen scale nowadays; use it for this once, and then you'll be able to eyeball it for ever after.

i know, you think i'm insane when i say this. most people are used to hearing fairly useless answers to this crucial question, such as 2 tablespoons per 5 or 6 ounces water. but tablespoons are far from consistent in size, and most people wonder why 5? why 6? which should i choose?

other recommendations are just plain wrong. recently someone recommended 8.5 grams of coffee per 4 oz. of water. this is not a correct ratio; few people would enjoy this coffee, and most would call it unpalatably strong. but you will more often see ratios that result in coffee that's too weak, that looks like herb tea.

fortunately, we have science on our side here. scaa chief ted lingle has famously put together a fantastic tool, a veritable secret weapon, the coffee brewing control chart (excel 2000 format), that explains exactly how much coffee to use for how much water every time. in the center it has a shaded area that shows optimum flavor.

this area goes from about 47.5 grams of coffee per liter of water to 65 grams per liter, depending on how strong you like your coffee. but that's a bit complicated to figure out in the morning, right?

since the common bodum french presses come in only a few sizes, it's possible for me to tell you definitely how much coffee to use in each one for perfection. of course, it's your taste, and so after you've tried the recipe, you can vary it a bit to suit you.

but this should totally take the guesswork out of it. here goes:

press size in fl oz (usa)coffee weight in oz
(minimum)
100.6
120.75
16 0.9
171.0
321.8
342.0
482.7
press size in lcoffee weight in g
(minimum)
.317
.3520
.529
157
1.585

i've rounded the figures off a tad for ease of use. if you're unsure how large your press is, pour water into it up to the bottom of the top metal collar. measure that amount.

don't always believe what the box tells you: measure it once yourself! you may find the smaller presses hold a little less water than the stated size.

as i've said, once you've done this, you'll always be able to remember the amount. and you'll be amazed at how great your coffee tastes once you have:

  1. the right amount of coffee,
  2. the right water temperature,
  3. stirred correctly,
  4. steeped for the right amount of time,
  5. and poured the coffee into a thermos away from the used grounds after pressing.

need i add that if you were an scaa consumer member, you would learn all this cool stuff and more?

posted by fortune | 7:21 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 3 comments

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