Despite it being a timeless brewing method that’s super portable and simple to use, many people just aren’t familiar with how to use a French press and would prefer to just use their drip machine.
While I can’t argue that it’s not going to take a little more of your time and effort than a drip machine does, once you get the hang of the French press it’s really straightforward and you won’t even have to think about it!
It ultimately comes down to four general steps: 1) preparation and addition of coffee and hot water; 2) steeping the coffee; 3) separation of grounds from the coffee; and 4) decanting the coffee.
Admittedly, the first time I used my French press there was a learning curve like anything else, but now I’ve been using it for years and continue to enjoy it! So if you’re wondering how to use a French press, read on to clear up any confusion and get you on your way to brewing!
French press basics
Before we dive into the details of each of these steps, let’s cover the basics of how a French press works and what types are out there.
How a French press works
A French press is a pretty simple coffee maker and is made up of two parts. First you have the beaker which sits inside the base and handle. The beaker is typically made of glass, but more on that in a bit. Then you have the lid, which is attached to the plunger and metallic filter.
The French press uses the immersion brewing process, unlike your typical drip coffee machine or pour over maker which utilize a filter and gravity for brewing. Basically, with immersion brewing you’re steeping the ground coffee in the hot water and allowing them to sit for a set amount of time.
This method allows flavor extraction to occur over the surface area of all the grounds immersed in the hot water. Because of this, the grind size, water temperature, coffee to water ratio, and time mean everything with the French press.
Once the desired brewing time is up, you simply separate the coffee grounds from the coffee (using the plunger and filter) and decant the coffee into your cup or a different container/decanter.
Changing up your brewing variables with the French press gives you full control over your coffee’s taste, but that also means you have to take them seriously and be consistent or you’ll struggle with getting and keeping the flavor right.
Types of French presses
Before going into the details on using your French press, one other important thing to remember is there are different types/configurations of French presses. These are based on size, beaker material, and brewing process, as follows:
- 3 cups (0.35 L / 11.8 oz)
- 4 cups (0.5 L / 16.9 oz)
- 8 cups (1 L / 33.8 oz)
- 12 cups (1.5 L / 50.7 oz)
- Beaker Material
- Glass (most common)
- Shatterproof plastic
- Brewing Process
- Manual (most common)
You should consider these options when buying your French press or when brewing for the first time. The size can be a bit deceiving because the number of cups doesn’t equate to the actual number of servings you’ll make. As you can see, a 3 cup machine only equates to 11.8 oz, or about 1 to 1.5 full mugs of coffee (depending on your cup size).
Although glass is the most common material for the beaker, the metal and ceramic options are more durable and provide better heat insulation. Although in my opinion, as long as you preheat your beaker, the insulation component can be a little gimmicky since you’ll be immediately decanting the coffee into your cup or another container, so you don’t have to worry about your French press holding heat for too long.
Finally, the only difference between the electric and manual French presses is the process for heating the water.
While the manual French press requires hot water to be added to it, the electric option heats it in the beaker. While this is a nice feature if you want to save a step, I personally still like the manual process because I can adjust my water temperature (if necessary) depending on other factors like grind size or time.
What you’ll need
In order to brew, you’re going to need the following:
- French press
- Coffee beans (medium or dark roast)
- Burr grinder
- Electric kettle with temperature setting, or stovetop kettle and thermometer
- Stirring spoon
As always, it’s best to buy whole beans and use a burr grinder (not a blade grinder) to grind them immediately before brewing in order to get the best tasting coffee. A blade grinder is not recommended because it can produce an inconsistent grind which results in over or under-extraction of the coffee flavors.
If you don’t have access to a grinder, check out the Frequently Asked Questions at the end of this page to learn how you can still brew with pre-ground (medium) coffee.
Using a scale to measure out the mass of beans and water will always be more accurate and consistent than using cups and tablespoons. This is especially true since beans have differing densities. But if you don’t have access to a scale, it’s possible to use tablespoons and cups.
Instructions for how to use a French press
Below are the step-by-step instructions for how to use a French press, with tips along the way!
Step 1 – Heat water and preheat the beaker
Just like any other brewing method, heating the water is a crucial element. You want the water temperature to be within the range of 195-205°F, so shoot for 200°F.
Tip: If you want to save yourself an extra step, make sure you heat enough water for both preheating and brewing during this first step.
You can use any method you like for boiling water, but the preferred method is an electric kettle with a temperature setting. This makes it simple to set it and forget while you’re doing other things and come back to water at the exact temperature you want. Check out our article on water temperature if you’d like to learn more.
Once the water is heated, remove the plunger from your French press and add hot water to the beaker until it’s about one-third full. Let it sit for about 2 minutes or until the French Press feels warm. You can pour out the hot water after it’s preheated.
This step heats up the beaker to help maintain the temperature during brewing and helps prevents your hot water from dropping in temperature once you add it to the room temperature beaker, which could cause under-extraction of the flavor. As an added bonus, it’s also a nice way to get a final clean of the beaker before we brew.
Step 2 – Weigh and grind the beans
It’s always best to grind your own beans using a Burr grinder right before brewing. This maximizes the freshness of your beans. You want to use a medium or dark roast coffee with a Coarse grind size.
Just like it’s better to grind your beans instead of using pre-ground beans, it’s better to weigh your beans with a scale rather than using a volume measurement like tablespoons. Weighing is more accurate and allows you to be consistent. If you need more convincing, head over to our article on coffee to water ratio.
Use a 1:15 coffee to water ratio (66.7 grams per liter) for brewing. If you want stronger coffee, you can up it to a 1:11 ratio (90.9 grams per liter).
If you don’t have a scale to measure grams, take a look at the Frequently Asked Questions at the end of this article to see how to use tablespoons and cups.
To use the 1:15 or 1:11 ratios, first determine the amount of coffee you want to make (or what the max capacity is on your French press without overflowing) in milliliters. Then divide that number by 15 or 11 (depending on the ratio you picked) and you’ll get the number of grams of coffee to use.
Tip: When you’re determining how much coffee you want to make, remember to account of the space that the plunger will take up inside the beaker so that you don’t overflow it.
You can weigh your beans before or after grinding. Weighing before grinding is easier, and many of the higher-end grinders will not retain too many grounds during grinding.
However, if you have more of an entry level grinder and find that grounds are getting stuck in your grinder, then make sure you’re weighing both before and after grinding, and make sure to adjust as necessary.
Step 3 – Add the coffee grounds to the beaker
This step is pretty straightforward – just dump your grinds into the preheated French press.
Step 4 – Add the correct amount of hot water to the beaker
Now you can weigh and add your hot water to the French press. The best way to do this is to place the French press on the scale, zero/tare the scale, and then begin adding the water until you reach the proper amount of water based on the coffee to water ratio.
Or if you use your French press all the time and know exactly where to fill it each time for your desired coffee to water ratio, then you may be able to skip measuring the water.
Be sure to add the hot water slowly. As you fully saturate the coffee grounds, you’ll see them start to “bloom.” During “blooming,” they absorb water and release carbon dioxide which forms a foam/crust on the top.
Once you’ve added the right amount of water, do a quick stir to make sure all the coffee is fully mixed, and then start a timer on your phone.
Step 5 – Add the lid and steep the coffee
Add the plunger and lid to the French press during steeping/brewing to help retain the heat.
Step 6 – Separate the coffee grounds by pushing the plunger and filter down
Once the timer hits 4 minutes, your coffee is done brewing. Slowly press the plunger down until it is as far down as it can go.
If the plunger is hard to press, that means your grind size is too fine. On the other hand if you feel little to no resistance when pressing down, then your grind size is too coarse. If you’re using the recommended Coarse grind size, then you should get a feel for the right resistance after a brew or two.
Step 7 – Pour (decant) and enjoy!
You’re all done, so it’s time to enjoy! Go ahead and pour a cup for yourself.
If you brewed more than you’re planning to drink immediately, you should transfer the remaining coffee in the beaker into another container to prevent over-extraction of flavor. This is because as long as the coffee grounds are still in contact with the coffee, the mixture will keep steeping and develop a very bitter taste.
Step 8 – Clean the French press
As with all other brewing methods, you want to make sure you clean your French press after every use. Fortunately, the cleaning process is pretty simple.
Make sure you dump the coffee grounds in the trash and don’t rinse them down the sink or you’ll risk clogging it. Then simply clean and rinse both the beaker and plunger with warm water and a mild detergent/soap. Once they’re clean, dry them off and you’re good to go!
Frequently Asked Questions
Coarse is the best grind size for use in a French press. You can drop in size to Medium-Coarse, but want to avoid going any smaller than that, or any larger than Coarse.
The larger the grind size, the less extraction and weaker your coffee will be. The smaller the grind size, the more extraction and stronger your coffee will be. Going too small or too large risks the wrong amount of flavor extraction and your coffee not tasting good!
If you’re outside this grind size range, such as with a Medium grind size, you’ll want to adjust other variables to compensate. While it’s doable, this requires more advanced skills to master the art. If you’re not quite there yet, try to avoid a Medium grind if you can (or jump on in there and get to experimenting!).
If you don’t have a grinder but still want to enjoy French press coffee, you have two options. First, you can try to buy pre-ground coffee with a Coarse grind size. You’ll likely have to look online though, as the pre-ground coffee in the store is typically a Medium grind size.
Your other option is to use the pre-ground (Medium) coffee and adjust your brewing accordingly. The smaller grind size of Medium as compared to Coarse will produce faster flavor extraction, so you’re at risk of over-extraction (bitter tasting coffee) if you use a Medium grind size with nothing else adjusted.
Your best bet with a Medium grind size is to use a water temperature of 195°F (the lower end of the ideal temperature range of 195°F-205°F). This will slow the flavor extraction to meet the new grind size. If your coffee still tastes bitter, you can try reducing the steeping time in small increments (for example, 30 seconds) from 4 minutes until the taste is to your liking. However, if you still can’t get the taste you want, you may need to start over and try adjusting the coffee to water ratio.
If you don’t have an electric kettle and absolutely can’t get a hold of a kitchen thermometer, you can get fairly close by first boiling water and then waiting anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes for the water to cool off. Remember though, the 212°F boiling temperature of water only applies at sea level, so it’ll vary by your exact location/elevation. Check out our article on coffee water temperature to learn more.
Whatever amount of time you choose to wait after boiling, use a timer to check how much time you wait and stay consistent when brewing the next time. Consistency is one of the most important factors in brewing coffee, especially when you’re trying to adjust the flavor or troubleshoot.
The ideal amount of time for steeping is 4 minutes. You can adjust this time to make your coffee stronger (more time) or weaker (less time). Just be careful not to overdo it too far in one direction, as you can cause over or under-extraction. We recommend adjusting the time in 30 second increments (or even smaller) so that you avoid messing up the coffee’s taste.
If you don’t have a scale, you’ll need to do a volume measurement using tablespoons and cups. Use the ratio of 3 tablespoons of coffee per cup of water. To reduce the error/inconsistency of measurements from brew to brew, measure out tablespoons after grinding the beans instead of measuring the whole beans.
The best roast for a French press is either a medium or dark roasted coffee, but there is nothing saying you can’t try a roast outside of those two!
You may be asking this question because you have an electric French press which keeps the coffee hot after brewing, or you may have a large French press that you like to pour your second cup out of after finishing your first.
In either case, you should not leave your coffee sitting in your French press, even if you’ve separated the coffee grounds to the bottom using the plunger. If you do leave it sitting in the French press, as long as your coffee is in contact with the grounds it will continue extracting flavor and will eventually taste very bitter (over-extracted).
The Bottom Line
By following the steps outlined above, you should produce a consistently flavorful brew using your French press. The process may seem a little involved at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll realize there’s not much to it.
The French press gives you complete control over your brewing so you need to make sure you dial in your brewing variables (grind size, water temperature, coffee to water ratio, and time) and then stay consistent.
For those who are on the fence about trying a French press, I say go for it! If you’re concerned about cost, the press itself is relatively cheap. If you have a busy lifestyle and time is more of a concern, you could save the French press for the weekend. Personally, I like to treat myself with the French press and Moka Pot on the weekends. The French press is a nice way to break into the more “manual” brewing methods, which take more time but are also more fun.
If you’re still not convinced and want to explore other brewing methods, check out our article on the best way to brew coffee to find the best fit for you!