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French coffee press... one step at a time!
January 19, 2014 1:34 PM   Subscribe

What is the reason for pushing the filter down on a French coffee press in stages rather than in one single motion?

When I was an overseas student in Paris, my host family would let the coffee in the press sit for a pretty long time. They would only press it down in small increments - maybe 4-5 stages in total. In between presses, they'd just let it sit.

To this day, I still do this. When anyone asks me why though, I'm at a loss for an explanation - it's just how I learned it.

Has anyone else heard of this? Why is it done this way? What benefits does it have, or what does it prevent? Do you do it differently, ie, in one motion? Anecdata welcome.
posted by war wrath of wraith to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like maybe they just wanted their coffee to keep getting stronger. I don't do it this way, but I think the coffee gets gross tasting if it steeps for too long.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:41 PM on January 19


If you stir up the grounds before you try and plunge, there's a large amount of resistance. It's very difficult to push it more than a centimetre at a time.

Alternatively, if the grounds are all floating at the top and the caffetiere is pretty full, pushing it all the way at once will cause coffee to jet up and out the spout, so you need to do it little by little at first.

I'm not sure if either of these relate exactly to what you describe, but if I plunge in stages then they're the reason.
posted by Lorc at 1:45 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


Once the grinds have settled at the bottom, you can move the filter through almost pure coffee liquid. The grinds are less likely to seep through on the sides of the filter if you're not actively forcing the filter through them. Once you've moved a short distance, there will be grinds swirling around everywhere due to turbulence though, so you let them settle again before moving the filter a bit more.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 1:45 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


My guesses are fuller extraction and better straining. When you push the press down, the motion induced in the coffee disturbs the settled grounds at the bottom of the jug. So they extract a little more that they would if you just left it sitting for that extra time. Waiting for them to settle gives them time to finish doing that, and also reduces the amount of grounds that escape around the sides of the press.

Yeah, that's my guess anyway...
posted by howfar at 1:47 PM on January 19


I think it also allows some time for any trapped air to escape through the coffee grounds and into the top bit. Press down too fast and you can explode the glass (not an urban myth, I've done it myself).
posted by girlgenius at 1:58 PM on January 19


French press techniques are very much repeated as one learns them; this is not uncommon among people who make a french press, but it doesn't yield a very uniform cup overall.

If you're looking for the best possible extraction without part of the coffee being under, or over-extracted, this is not the technique to be used. I really like this chart, and for the purposes of what you're talking about, the middle section (underdeveloped, ideal, and bitter) is what we're looking at. If you're splitting the french press's yeilding liquid into 5ths, and serving them at the same frequency, your first fifth is going to be underdeveloped; the coffee hasn't had enough time to infuse the water with it's optimum extraction. the 2nd fifth, will be closer, but probably still be on the side of underextracted. the middle 5th will be in the 'ideal' arena, and the last 2 fifths will be in the over-extrated, or bitter section.

Water keeps brewing coffee as long as it is in contact with the grounds. This is why most fancypants newer wave coffee shops suggest decanting the french press into another vessel, or serving it all ASAP. It has a tendency to get less muddy if you do this as well.

Little experiment to illustrate: get a friend to bring over a press pot and measure out the same weight of beans to grind and put in each. Pour just shy of boiling water in one, and wait 3 minutes. At the 3 minute mark, hit the second press with hot water. Wait one minute, and pour off all the liquid. You'll have a really extreme look at what you're talking about. You'll have 1 underdeveloped press, and 1 'ideal' press. If you want to explore overextracted coffee, just do the whole thing with 3 presses, and let the longest brew go for about 8 minutes.

Is the meothod you outlined a wrong way to brew the coffee? Nope. Not if you like it that way. But you might like it better another way.
posted by furnace.heart at 1:59 PM on January 19 [9 favorites]


Depends a little on the type of coffee you're using, specifically its fattiness and coarseness, but basically Lorc's first explanation is the one you need:
Pressing it all down in one sweep tends to make that the coffee that assembles on the other side of the strainer thingy. The accumulating layer of coffee acts like a very dense (but in terms of tastiness entirely unnecessary) filter. You need to use a lot of extra force to push on, and I've seen people split the entire pot in the process (which, incidentally, can lead to a satisfyingly encyclopedic variety of injuries).
posted by Namlit at 1:59 PM on January 19


I've always pushed it down in one motion.

There is a lot of old wive's tale cargo cult type of "you have to do it this way or NOPE for Reasons" wisdom in the ritual of making coffee.

The press is harder to push down the finer the grind is, so maybe pushing down in stages is an adaptation by people who use pre-ground coffee or grind overly fine? A coarse grind is better for a French press, as a rule.
posted by Sara C. at 2:24 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


If you stir up the grounds before you try and plunge, there's a large amount of resistance. It's very difficult to push it more than a centimetre at a time.

I stir the grounds before plunging (with a course grind), and there's very little resistance. Nonexistent compared to an aeropress. Unless some sort of press is being used that I'm not familiar with, I can't imagine this being the reason why.

As far as why the stages, I only have theories. If I make a french press and not all of it will be immediately consumed, I put the rest in a carafe. The coffee tends, to my taste, to become more bitter the longer left in the press.

I can't imagine doing the plunge in stages, though if this method somehow made better coffee, I might (I'd have to do a blind test to believe it is, in fact, better). And I don't see how that's could possibly the case.
posted by justgary at 4:32 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]


I pour 195 degree water over the coarse, freshly-ground coffee, stir, wait 3 mins, scoop out the inch or so of grounds that have floated to the top, then press down in one slow-ish motion with little to no resistance. Makes a perfect cup every time (which has been nearly every day for 5+ years).
posted by melissasaurus at 5:17 PM on January 19


I pour 195 degree water over the coarse, freshly-ground coffee, stir, wait 3 mins, scoop out the inch or so of grounds that have floated to the top, then press down in one slow-ish motion with little to no resistance. Makes a perfect cup every time (which has been nearly every day for 5+ years).

I do it almost the very same way. I pour boiling water over a very coarse-grind coffee, but I do not stir. I wait four minutes. I do not scoop out grounds, but I can press down in one slow motion. Works fine and makes great coffee, every time.

I think the only lesson here is to do it the way that makes what tastes good to you — there are so many variables in making coffee that there are no rules, except what makes sense to your taste buds.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:20 PM on January 19


I boil the water, turn off the heat and wait until it stops bubbling, and pour it over the coffee grounds in the press. I push the plunger down to submerge the grounds, pull it back up to just below the top of the liquid, and wait four minutes. Then I push down the plunger all the way, and pour the coffee. Works great.
posted by Scientist at 1:24 AM on January 20


I think the only lesson here is to do it the way that makes what tastes good to you — there are so many variables in making coffee that there are no rules, except what makes sense to your taste buds.

Agreed. Everyone has a different idea of the perfect cup, and usually their own way of getting there. But I also agree with Sara C:

There is a lot of old wive's tale cargo cult type of "you have to do it this way or NOPE for Reasons" wisdom in the ritual of making coffee.

I've seen a lot of strange techniques when it comes to coffee, and many for no other reason than they saw someone do it, or heard of it. Maybe that method is beneficial, but it also might have no benefit whatsoever. Any many times they couldn't tell you why they used a particular technique.

I have no idea why the host family pressed in stages. I tend to doubt it was due to difficulty (REALLY doubt it), but I could also be completely wrong. But the OP doesn't mention any difficulty in pressing, so that's not the reason they're doing it. They're doing it because that's how they were taught.

If I was the OP, I would simply make two presses, one with the normal method mentioned several times in this thread (and used most places), and one using the host family's method. It wouldn't solve the mystery of why the host family used that particular technique, but it would show if it's making a difference in the OP's coffee or if it's just for show.
posted by justgary at 6:44 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I seem to recall now that there was a lot of pressure, and as Lorc said, you couldn't push it down much more than a few centimeters at a time. But this wasn't always the case - not at all sure what it had to do with, but there were times when there was no pressure at all.

Perhaps French presses in France were more airtight?

Thanks everyone!
posted by war wrath of wraith at 8:50 PM on January 20


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