The first time using a French press can be a bit confusing. When do you push that little plunger down? Do you push it immediately or do you wait a little? Luckily it’s not too complicated if you know what it does. Here’s what you need to know.
A French press brews coffee by steeping the grounds in the water for an extended period of time. Pushing down the plunger separates the grounds and liquid so it stops the brewing process. In general, waiting four minutes before pressing the plunger yields the right strength and taste of coffee.
For more details on the brewing process, what the plunger exactly does and how you can use it to influence the taste of your coffee, keep reading.
What does a French press plunger do?
To know how long we should wait before pressing the plunger, it’s good to first understand what it actually does. It’s pretty much the only moving part on a French press so while it’s not complicated, it does have a large role to play in the brewing process.
There are two main parts on a French press; The carafe and the lid/plunger. The carafe is used to put in the grounds and water to brew. The lid with plunger and filter is placed on top of that.
The lid has a tiny hole in the middle. There’s a little metal rod that can slide through that hole. On one side of the rod there’s a little knob, on the other side you have the metal filter screens.
So what you’re actually doing when pushing the plunger is pushing the filter down. The grounds get caught under the filter and the liquid (coffee) can move through the filter to the top. That means that pushing down the plunger separates the coffee grounds and the brewed coffee.
Effectively, pushing down the plunger on a French press stops the brewing process.
Before pushing, the water and grounds are hanging out together. The water extracts all the goodness from the grounds and brews coffee in that process. When you separate the two, this process stops and the coffee stays the same strength and taste.
The bed of coffee stays at the bottom of the French press. So the brew up to can still have a little bit of contact with the grounds because the water can still move through the filter. However, the surface area of grounds the water can interact with is dramatically reduced when the plunger is pushed down. In the time it takes you to drink the coffee, it really won’t impact the taste much.
This is also the reason you don’t want to push the plunger back up after pushing down. All the agitation that causes can really bring out a lot of bitterness in the coffee.
How long to wait before pushing the plunger
The question of how long to wait before pushing down the plunger can be asked another way; When is a French press done brewing?
Because pushing down the plunger stops the brewing process, we just have to know when we want to stop brewing and that’s the time you have to push down the plunger.
The French press brew time that works for most people is 4 minutes. That means you wait 4 minutes from pouring in the water until you push down the plunger. 4 minutes is a good starting point for your first brews. I personally use a little bit more time (5-6 minutes) but that really comes down to personal preference and which coffee you use.
As you might notice, this all goes by time. It’s a really good idea to set a timer when brewing a French press. Even if you have a glass press you can look through, it’s very difficult and inconsistent to go by looks. If you want your cup of coffee to be consistent and good every day, a timer is a good way to do so. Everyone has a timer on their smartphone, it doesn’t cost any extra to use it.
Also, if you time your brew and you’re not happy with the results, it’s the easiest way to change it the next day. When you’re just guessing if your coffee is ready, it can be great one day but then you have no way of recreating it the next day.
Mentioning the brew time should go together with mentioning weights. To get a really consistent cup of coffee, it’s best to weigh both the grounds and the water. Going by scoops of coffee is not very precise. Different coffees weigh a different amount per scoop and scoops are just not a very consistent way of measuring. Going by grams (or ounces if you prefer) is a much more precise and consistent way to brew coffee.
A coffee scale is a pretty useful tool because they can measure in 0.1 increments but most of them also have a timer built in. So both the amount of coffee and the brew time are covered if you get one. To get started you don’t need a very expensive one. I’ve been using the one below every day for more than a year and it does a good job.
It’s not the highest quality and doesn’t look great but, I’ve put it next to a scale that costs almost 4 times as much (TimeMore C2, Amazon) and it shows the exact same weight. The more expensive scales are much better looking, feel better, and have some other cool features like an auto-start timer for example. However, if you don’t want to spend much money, the one below is a good option.
Using brew time to change taste
The time from pouring in the water until you push down the plunger is the brew time. You can use the brew time in a French press to influence the strength and taste of the coffee. Of course the biggest way the taste is impacted is by the coffee you use. But the brew time can fine tune the taste and strength quite a bit as well.
You might think that to save money, you can just put a tiny bit of coffee grounds in your French press and just wait longer to get it stronger. It doesn’t really work like that. While brew time does have an impact on the overall strength, it also has an effect on taste development. At the point where you would get “strong” coffee with little grounds, you also have a taste that’s not very pleasant at all.
Coffee beans have a lot of different compounds in them. Brewing coffee is the process of infusing the right compounds into the water. There are also some compounds you don’t want in your coffee because they make the taste very bitter. Those bitter compounds are the ones that come out later on. So with longer brew times, more bitterness comes out.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because bitterness is one of the tastes that makes coffee what it is but, you don’t want to take it too far.
On the flipside, if you don’t steep coffee long enough, the taste can be very sour. That means you need to steep it longer. The sour compounds are the ones that are the most easily dissolved so you get those out of the beans first. The compounds that come out of the beans later on balance that sourness with more sweetness and bitterness.
The right brew time is where you’re happy with the taste balance. For most people that’s around 4 minutes. When using lighter roasts, a bit longer can work well. In general, the lighter a coffee is roaster, the harder it is to extract all the taste you want from it. The 4 minutes brew time in a French press is based on a dark roast.
That is why brew time is mostly used to influence the taste and not the overall strength of the coffee. Once you’ve reached a taste balance you like but then want to increase the strength, that’s the time to use more grounds for the amount of water you’re using.
For example; you’ve been using 12 grams of grounds for 200 ml of water in your French press. You’ve experimented with the brew time and you reached a taste you like at 4 minutes but the coffee isn’t strong enough for your taste. To keep the taste the same but get stronger coffee, you increase the amount of coffee grounds (1 gram at a time) but keep the brew time the same. That will result in a similar taste profile but stronger overall.
- French press coffee is too bitter: Steep coffee shorter by pushing down the plunger earlier.
- French press coffee is sour: Steep coffee longer by pushing down the plunger later.
- French press coffee tastes good but could be stronger: Use more coffee grounds.
Favorite French Press Brewing Tools
Here are some things that help you brew better coffee:
- French press: This beautiful stainless steel Meuller French press (Amazon) is high quality yet affordable and the double filtration system means less sediment in your cup.
- Grinder: Fresh beans have to be ground. A hand grinder like the Hario Slim (Amazon) is affordable yet effective hand grinder that will improve your cold brew.
- Scale: The amount of grounds you use makes a big impact on what your cold brew tastes like. A simple set of scales will makes your brews more consistent. I’ve been using this one (Amazon) for over a year with great success. Not the most aesthetic but effective.