How to Make the Perfect Cup of Coffee

If you, like me, consider coffee something close to the Eighth Wonder of the World, you might want to keep reading.

I was recently in Seattle and had the pleasure of sharing a meal with the author Neal Stephenson, a lovely man who’s also a part-time inventor at Intellectual Ventures. (He has worked on, inter alia, I.V.’s hurricane-busting device.) As delicious as the food was, it was nearly eclipsed by the coffee Neal served afterward. He made it in a French press, which is how I make coffee at home. But it tasted far superior. I’m not the kind of person who typically asks for recipes — especially for coffee. But in this case, I did.

Turns out that Neal picked up his coffee technique from Chris Young, the acclaimed Fat Duck chef (and food scientist/writer) whom Nathan Myhrvold brought on board at I.V. to create Modernist Cuisine, the landmark cookbook featured in our two-part podcast “Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup!”

Photo: iStockphoto

Chris was good enough to send along his coffee recipe, which I’ll reproduce below. I’ve started to make coffee in this fashion and, while the placebo effect may be polluting my reality — I haven’t done any blind tastings, nor much experimentation yet — I have to say that the coffee is amazing. One key step  is to “skim” the grounds from the top of the coffee before plunging. This is a weirdly satisfying thing to do, especially when you let the grounds “bloom” in the press pot, as described. (It also makes cleaning the French press easier in the long run.) So if you’ve got the energy, desire and resources to try to make the perfect cup of coffee at home, take a look. Experiment. Let us know how it works out. Thanks to Neal, Chris, and the assorted forefathers of the technique.

French Press Coffee, by Chris Young:

Neal tells me that you’re interested in further details of the French press coffee technique that he uses. I can’t claim the technique is mine; I learned it from my friend James Hoffmann. James is a former World Barista Champion and has a wonderful blog covering all things coffee. James has a great video of the technique here.

I’m fairly certain that James learned of the technique from another World Barista Champion, Tim Wendelboe from Norway.

Here is the basic theory of the technique as I understand it:

1. The brewing ratio is critical. So using a scale to weigh the grounds and the water will make a remarkable difference to the consistency of your coffee. I like 70g of grounds per liter of water. My press pot will hold about 700g if water, so usage 49/50g of grounds to the hot water.

2. Grind size matters. For French press, the coffee should be ground coarse and have a uniform particle distribution (actually the distribution is trimodal, but that’s a tangent). Only burr grinders can achieve this. If you don’t have a decent burr grinder, have your beans ground for French Press by a reputable coffee shop. (BTW, I recently looked at good burr grinders for home use and can highly recommend the Baratza virtuoso preciso. A bit pricey, but really the only decent one IMO at an almost affordable price point.)

3. Keep the brewing time consistent. I use 4 minutes for the grind size I use and will adjust the brewing ratio to find the ideal strength for my cup of coffee. Grind size, brewing ratio, and brewing time all interact, so adjusting only the brewing ratio helps me from getting confused when I’m dialing things in for a new batch of beans.

4. I will usually not cover the press during the steeping. I like to allow the grounds to “bloom” as much as possible. Anything that prevents this tends to yield an uneven extraction from the cake of coffee.

5.  Skimming makes an amazing difference. I was shocked just how big this difference was when I first tried it, but it makes sense. The basic French Press design allows a lot of the “fines” from the coffee to pass through the plunged screen. These fines continue to steep in the coffee, resulting in very over extracted coffee with a bitter taste and a muddy mouthfeel. By skimming the cake of swollen grounds before plunging, you’re throwing out a lot of these fines, so you end up with less overextraction and a cleaner mouthfeel.

ADDENDUM: In the comments, there seems to be considerable mystery about the “skimming” process: what is it? how it is done? what tools are used? Sorry to have made it sound more difficult than it is: “skimming” simply means removing the grounds at the top of the carafe before plunging the press. I use a large spoon. Also: see the video linked above for the entire process — although I found that by breaking up the “cake” of swollen grounds, as the video advises, skimming becomes much harder, as some of the grounds are dispersed into the liquid. Good luck!

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  1. kyle says:

    ugh perfection is always so time consuming.

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    • lewarcher says:

      In this case, not at all! The most time consuming parts of making French press coffee are cleaning the coffee grinder and the press afterwards. And thanks to the last tip, cleaning the press now becomes a lot easier.

      The rest of the steps are: measure beans, grind, boil water, wait, enjoy!

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  2. Badri says:

    Dubner, take a look at this. My grandfather was a coffee farmer. This is a video of how to make traditional south indian coffee. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UbEFuWOsYk Enjoy.

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  3. jacques oeuf says:

    Come on Stephen…a bon vivant’s ode to coffee and “inter alia” in the same article

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  4. Fred Schechter says:

    fwiw apparently the burr grinder company name is Baratza not Bratza as noted above (I was just hunting it) thanks for the great burr grinder tip and amazing recipe!!!

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  5. lewarcher says:

    Great article, and I’m trying this tomorrow morning!

    One question, though: in step 3, does “brewing time” mean “steeping time”? I assume so, but want to doublecheck.

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  6. Lars Olsson says:

    This sounds like the best advice I’ve yet heard about for reducing the problems of french-press coffee. I’m sure it makes a wonderful cup (or two, or three). But the problems of non-espresso (i.e. – forced steam) coffee have always been with us, and they break down into the contrasting drawbacks of the two main ways to brew coffee: drip and french press.

    Briefly, everything in your post about grind size, ratio of grounds to water and brew time all mattering and all interacting are correct. I’d add one other factor, water temperature, but that’s not as much of a variable; it should merely be ALWAYS just off the boil (anything less than about 200 degrees or so is bad). However, in traditional coffee-maker drip (and even manual pour-over drip) brewing, the problem is that the water is not in contact with the grounds for a long enough time. With a #4 or even larger size cone filter, there’s only so much water you can hold in the cone before it overflows. So, of necessity, the drip starts immediately, and is controlled by how quickly water is poured into the cone. Even if you get brew temp, grind size and the grounds-to-water ratio correct, you can’t avoid this shortcoming.

    In a french press, the problem is as you described: the grounds (all of them) are able to remain in contact with the water for the appropriate length of time…but then are pushed to the bottom of the press by a filtering system which always been porous at best, allowing that “gritty” feel through into the cup. Also, most people do not pour off all of the coffee into a separate carafe immediately, allowing it to grow stronger and more bitter over time.

    Let me state this now in hope that you won’t yank this comment: I DO NOT work for this company; I’m merely a coffee geek who really, really likes a good cup of BREWED coffee as much as good espresso. The solution to the opposing problems of french press and pour-over drip coffee can be found in this product: http://www.amazon.com/ABID-CO-LTD-C-70888-Dripper/dp/B0047W70GY It’s an ordinary-looking filter cone, like many other cup-top filter cones available for decades, with one HUGE difference: the drain. In most filter cones, there are simply holes in the bottom which allow the coffee to begin draining immediately. In this one, the drain is a pressure-activated plug which stays shut under normal circumstances and only opens to allow liquid to drip through when the bottom is set on a circular surface which reaches between its four “feet” to depress the mechanism that opens the drain.

    In practice, this means that you can put your grinds into your filter of choice in the cone, fill it up with exactly the right ratio of perfectly-hot water, and then leave it there, just as you would in a french press. Then, after your time is up (I tend to use three-and-a-half to four minutes), you set the entire cone on top of your favorite mug and allow it to drain (which is a fairly rapid process), resulting in the grounds being filtered well – just as in traditional drip coffee, and NOT remaining in contact with the brewed coffee (which all winds up in your cup).

    Yes, the one drawback of this method is that you can only make one cup at a time – although it can be a fairly large cup, up to about 16 oz. But you the best of both worlds – french press AND pour-over drip coffee – with none of the drawbacks of either method. Best of all, this thing’s pretty cheap. Only about $20, I think (check link). Having owned several french presses over the years as well as uncounted pour-over drip methods, both manual and automatic/machine, I can comfortably say this is without question, head and shoulders, the best cup of brewed coffee available today, bar none. Try it.

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  7. Tom says:

    Just tried this technique and found it pretty good – I already stirred the coffee to get the bloom and steeped for 4 minutes before pressing, but the skimming tip added extra smoothness, so thanks for that. As Lars said below, water temperature is important too. I don’t actually measure the temperature but leave the water for about a minute before pouring. I thought the coffee/water ratio was a bit heavy, but I guess that is just a case of personal preference.

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    • John F says:

      What did you skim with? I tried it to but there were a lot of coffee at the top. Did you skim all of it off the top?

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  8. AaronS says:

    Ah, my friends, you forgot five of the most important steps of all. I learned these many years ago while in Istanbul for rather sensitive talks with an important (now dead) sheik. While he could not accept my faith, he did embrace me with a hospitality that spoke of old-world nobility and Islamic tradition at its finest.

    When I complimented the extraordinary coffee, he smiled, called for a servant to bring in the “kofershurmen.” He advised (through the interpreter) that on his culinary staff there was one man who did nothing–nothing!–but perfect the art of brewing coffee. When the kofershurmen came out and bowed to his master, words were exchanged which brought a very bright smile to the kofershurmen’s face and eyes. He turned to me, bowed, and returned to the kitchen.

    The next morning, upon my departure, the sheik handed me a piece of fine parchment wrapped in leather. I opened it on the yacht taking me across the strait. On it were a number of instructions which I had to have interpreted when I arrived back in Rome. While I won’t tell you everything, I will tell you five KEY elements that had been “solved” for me by that sheik.

    Some years later, I attended his funeral. I was told that the kofershurmen, still in the employ of the household, wished to see me. I was made to understand that my compliment years before had elevated him in the household to a place of greater trust and compensation. It seemed that the sheik felt that coffee had provided a bridge of understanding between the East and the West. I replied that I was only too happy to have played some small role, but that the real catalyst had been this man’s utter dedication to excellence in the preparation of coffee.

    With that, here are the five KEY elements….

    1) Place the ground coffee (nothing less than Columbian, but preferably “dark Turkish”!) in a very hot cast-iron skillet for 30-60 seconds, scattering/stirring it at all times to prevent burning. This releases the coffee oils that are captured within the bean–and which hot water is not hot enough to extract in its fullness and richness.

    2) Add BOILING water. There is a subtle difference in microwaved water and boiling water, perhaps attributable to molecular alignments which suffuse the coffee to fuller or lesser extents.

    3) If you must have creamer, NEVER add milk to coffee. If you must add anything, make it a top-notch, whole CREAM (preferably from the goats that inhabit the lower foothills of the Ararat mountains). Great coffee DESERVES great accompaniment. (In some places, a pat of fresh butter serves to take the coffee to places that less civilized palates cannot follow.)

    4) If you must add sugar, add UNREFINED sugar–it adds an earthiness and sweetness that refined sugar has lost. Cuban sugar, in its wildest expression, is the best known. After that, Brazilian sugars are best.

    5) NEVER use plastic or styrofoam. I learned this on my own. When plastic became available, I used it. But it can hold to the flavors of earlier contents. Even if it has only been used for coffee, it can subtly taint the quality of the current serving of coffee. You wouldn’t think of serving filet mignon on paper plates. Don’t think of serving the finest coffee in the world in anything but china.

    NOW, and only now, are you ready to open the Wall Street Journal and partake of the wisdom of others, to write that Great American Novel that is lying within your soul, and to stake your claim as one of the people who expect and receive the best of the bounty of earth. This is the sort of coffee over which billion-dollar deals are done–and with only a handshake. How do I know? Because I once shook hands with a sheik…over a cup of the world’s finest coffee. After all, anyone who would go to this level of excellence for a cup of coffee can be trusted with anything.

    Stay thirsty, my friends.

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    • Nimkii says:

      What an example of the worlds most arrogant coffee snob. “Only cream from goats from the foothills of the Ararat Mt’n’s”??!!! Get over your self. You must be a frick’n miserably pretentious person to be around. Surely this “shiek” had the wisdom to perceive this in seconds flat.

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      • AaronS says:

        Nimkii, may I ask you to consider why you are willing to live accept the second-, third-, fourth-rate offerings of the world? If the finest is said to be the cream of the goats in the foothills of the Ararat Mountains, and if I can obtain the finest, why wouldn’t I do that? If the finest material for a suit is fine wool, and if I can have fine wool, why settle for polyester?

        Don’t hold me as a snob because I have tasted–and now expect–that finest coffee. There was a time when I, like you, did not know that coffee could be so dramatically better than I had come to expect. When I found out, I made it a point that life was surely too short to deprive myself of the very few luxuries that I wanted for myself.

        Some are extravagant in their clothing, vehicles, vacations, homes, etc. While I might be seen as extravagant in these areas, I trust that I have not placed too large of a percentage of my wealth in these things. But when it comes to coffee, yes, it might cost me upwards of $20 a cup, but when you consider that far inferior Starbucks charges almost half that in some venues, well, I feel that I what others call an extravagance is really a tremendous value.

        Stay thirsty, my friends.

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      • Robert says:

        Nimkii, I hate to burst your self-righteous rant about the self-righteous auther, but anyone who has made his way to this website and actually read articles and posts is, unquestionably, a coffee snob. Allow me to quote an Eric Clapton cover; Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself. Sincerely,
        A Fellow Snob

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    • DMurf says:

      It’s Colombia, not Columbia. Pretentious, yes – but not without blemishes.

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