Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Not to use a French Press

Many people buy French presses and are disappointed with the results. So, in a nutshell, how not to use a French press is to merely follow the instructions you get from the manufacturer, or from some other source, and then to expect good coffee right out of the gate.

If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may have, somewhere along the way, purchased a French press. After this, three outcomes were likely (starting with the least likely):

1) It made the coffee of your dreams, and you and your French press lived happily ever after

2) It made coffee that you didn't much care for, and you chalked it up as another overblown gadget you'd wasted money on, stashed it away somewhere, and went back to using your drip-brewer

3) It made coffee you didn't much care for, but since you'd heard and read all the rave reviews about what wonderful coffee French presses make, you decided your palate was unsophisticated when it comes to coffee, and that you should learn to like what your French press turned out. So you use it, but secretly still like the coffee they serve at (insert name of restaurant or coffee bar here) better.

Why do I think it likely you got less than stellar results? Because a French press is a tool, not an appliance. Simply changing to a French press does not guarantee you will make better coffee, just as simply getting better pots and pans does not guarantee you will make better food. Better kitchen tools simply give you the opportunity for better results. You still have to learn how to use them.

In learning to use your French press, the first thing to understand about coffee is this: good coffee is coffee that tastes the way you want it to taste. Period.

You probably bought a French press, and then looked at the instructions for how to use it. Or perhaps, you read something online, or even in a book. The thing is, these instructions tell you how to make coffee that tastes the way the person who wrote the instructions likes it.

These instructions usually go something like this.

1) Heat X amount of water to X degrees

2) Put X amount of ground coffee in the press

3) Pour hot water over ground coffee, and let steep for X amount of time.

4) Pour coffee, and enjoy

I've often seen some other steps included, which contained nonsense like "pour a little water in first to allow the grounds to expand," but what I have listed here are the basic steps.

Here is the second thing to understand about coffee. And this is important, so pay attention. It contains "good" coffee flavors, and bitter flavors. The more water you pass over a given amount of coffee in a drip-brewer, or the longer you allow coffee to steep in a French press, the more bitter the brew will become.

Think of your coffee grounds as tiny, coffee-flavored candies, like those multi-layered jawbreakers. These layers dissolve in water, one at a time, so the more water you pour over them, or the longer they soak in water, the more layers dissolve. The outer layers are non-bitter coffee flavor, but each layer beneath gets progressively more bitter and less coffee-flavored, until at the very center, the flavor is almost all bitterness and no coffee. (Okay, the grounds don't actually dissolve; it's just useful to think of it this way, all right?)

Many people equate "strong" coffee with "bitter" coffee, and think they don't like strong coffee. Subsequently they don't put enough ground coffee in their drip coffee maker, and wind up with a weak, bitter brew. If they put more ground coffee in, they would have better flavor with less bitterness. Well, my idea of better, anyway. A French press has the advantage, here, because the ratio of coffee to water doesn't affect the bitterness of the coffee. Five cups of water, or five gallons, the flavor components are leeched from the grounds at the same rate, so the only difference will be in the strength of the brew. The steeping time is what controls the bitterness of the coffee. This is because in a French press, the grounds just sit there in the same water. In a drip coffee maker, new water is constantly being poured over them, which carries off first the good flavors, and then the bitter. It's like the difference between a stream and a pond.

So what does all this mean to you? What it means is that you need to find your own perfect method for using a French press. Maybe you like coffee with a little more bite to it. Maybe you like coffee that is very strong. Maybe you like coffee that is not so strong, but it's not bitter, either. Maybe you like weak, bitter coffee.

The wonderful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more. The awful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more.

A French press is not like a drip machine, where pretty much all you control are the brand and type of coffee, and how much of it to put in. With a French press, you control every aspect of the brewing, or in this case, steeping process. The quantity and temperature of the water, the quantity of the coffee, the steeping time. Which can be a great thing. It completely frees you to learn to make the coffee you love. So, why jump back into the pen with the rest of the cattle by following someone else's method?

But, first, of course, you must learn how to make the coffee you love with the French press. To do this, I recommend starting with whatever coffee you like in your drip-brewer, whether it be whole bean or pre-ground. Start by following the manufacturer's, or that guy on the internet's instructions. Then see how you like the taste. Want it stronger? Next time either use more coffee, less water, or increase the steeping time. Want a little more bite? Increase the steeping time. And so on. Experiment, changing only one thing at a time, until you arrive at the perfect method for you.

Some myths, some dos, some don'ts

Myth: Many people say things like "Never pour boiling water over coffee grounds, it will shock them." Then they recommend grinding the coffee after turning the heat off, apparently because the water will cool sufficiently in the few seconds it takes you to do this. I'm not sure why they think a couple of degrees will make a difference. For that matter, I have no idea what "shocking" means, or what it is supposed to do to your coffee, and, as these things go, no one who says this seems to know either. Perhaps make it write scathing letters to the editor? This, to me, is just one of those things the "experts" say, in order to sound knowledgable, and fits right in with other stock phrases like "Always wash your chicken before cooking," and is equally meaningless. I've tried it both ways, and the only difference I have noticed is the cooler the water, the cooler the coffee.

Do: Purchase a good vacuum carafe to pour your coffee into once it is done steeping. This will keep it tasting exactly the same as when fresh, and will keep it hot for hours. These are great things to have even if you don't plan on using a French press. Your coffee stays hot without being left on a burner, and you can take it with you. As I write this I am sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee, and my vacuum carafe. No trips to the kitchen for refills necessary. Of course a thermos will do the same thing, it's just that a carafe is more convenient. To dispense the coffee, all you have to do is push down a lever, and pour.

Don't: Don't leave your coffee in the French Press, and serve it from there. The whole idea is to stop the steeping process at the perfect point. Leave it in there, and it will continue to steep. Do it this way, and you may as well be using a percolator. And, by the way, those travel mugs that have a French press built right in are nothing but useless snobbery, for the same reason.

Myth: You shouldn't put the plunger assembly in the pot until you are ready to plunge. Unless you like cold coffee, this is just silly. Heat rises, and it rises out of the carafe all the more quickly if you don't put the plunger assembly in while steeping. In fact, you will notice that the grounds actually float, so what I like to do is to put the plunger in immediately, and even press down on it just enough to make sure all the grounds are under the water level. This keeps the heat in, and doesn't waste coffee.

Do: Keep your French press and your other equipment clean, especially while you are still experimenting. The brown buildup that results after almost every pot contains bitter oils, which will throw off the flavors of the next batch. I'm not saying that you need to dismantle it and run it through the dishwasher after every pot, but you certainly may. If you choose just to rinse and wipe the plunger after use, just remember that those oils also build up in the crevices between the plunger parts.

Don't: Don't switch brands or roasts of coffee until you have your method perfected with the first one. Unless, of course, you are prepared to start your experiment over.

Myth: You should pay attention when "experts" say things like "Never steep your coffee for more than five minutes." Wrong! It's your coffee, steep it for as long or short a time as tastes good to you. Use what the experts say as a starting point, then adjust one thing at a time from there, until you like the way your coffee tastes.

A French press certainly can make the best coffee you have ever tasted. However, it won't do it automatically. If all this sounds like too much work for your morning cup of joe, for you, it probably is, and in that case, I'd stick with the drip-brewer. However, if you are willing to put in the effort, eventually you will be able to make the perfect cup of coffee, every time, with your French press.

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