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A French press is a simple and easy way to brew your morning coffee. The only thing that moves is the plunger. But how far should you actually press it down? Push it all the way down? Or should you just leave it alone?
The plunger of a French press should be pushed down to the point where the resistance starts increasing. As soon as you feel an increase in resistance at the bottom, stop. This stops the brewing process but at the same time prevents too much sediment from getting in your cup.
Why is this the case and how does it work exactly. If you want a deeper understanding, keep reading.
How far should a French press plunger go down?
When a French press is done brewing, you have to push down the plunger. But how far should it be pushed down? Do you keep pushing until it goes as far as the plunger will allow or do you have to stop a bit earlier?
Not sure how to exactly make good coffee in a French press? Click here for my step-by-step guide.
As with most things in life, there has to be a balance. You want to put it not too far but at the same time you want to push it down far enough. So how far is enough?
Let’s think about what the plunger actually does. The plunger is a metal rod. At the top you’ll find a little knob so it’s more comfortable to press. The most important part is at the other end, the part of the plunger that goes into the pot. There is a collection of metal screens at the bottom of the plunger. This is the filter.
Nobody likes grounds in their coffee and the filter on the end of the plunger keeps most of them out of your cup. During the brewing process the water and grounds are in contact and brew coffee that way. You don’t want that process to keep going so to stop the brewing, you push the plunger.
After you’re happy with the brew time, push the plunger down with light to medium pressure until the first sign of higher resistance. This increased resistance means you have compressed all the grounds onto the bottom and there’s no other place for them to go. Press just up until the point the resistance starts increasing and stop there.
How long should you wait before pushing? Click here to learn.
You don’t want to push too hard to get as much liquid as you can. You also don’t want to leave too much in there.
Why you shouldn’t push too hard
There’s a reason why you should stop pushing immediately when your hit the point of resistance.
Pushing hard enough to compress the coffee grounds, pushes the tiniest particles also known as ‘fines’. into the brew. This results in more sediment in your cup and potentially a harsh, bitter taste.
The plunger, or more accurately, the filter screen at the bottom of it, is supposed to filter out the grounds from the coffee. And pushing it down removes most of the grounds floating around in the brew and prevents them from getting into your cup.
A French press uses a pretty coarse grind. That’s why the filter screen doesn’t have to be super fine to filter out the grounds. However, when you grind coffee, not all the particles will be the same size. You’re basically crushing the coffee beans between two pieces or ceramic or steel.
Coffee beans are pretty dry because of the roasting process. When you crush something dry, you won’t only break it up into pieces the size you want but there will also be some dust. That dust is also know as ‘fines’ because they are very fine particles.
The filter screen in a French press is fine enough to filter out all the coarser particles. It’s not fine enough to get rid of the fines though. That’s why you will always have some sediment in a cup of French press coffee.
Now, when you push down too hard on the coffee grounds, and you try to squeeze out the last drips of coffee, the fines that were hanging out with the rest of the grounds get pushed out. Think of the grounds as a sponge. A sponge you used to wash the dishes might seem dry and clean when left untouched. Squeeze it and more liquid and soap will come out. You don’t want to do this to your grounds.
The harder you push the plunger, the more fines come out and into your cup. This isn’t nice to drink and can cause your coffee to haven an unpleasant harsh bitterness.
Also, you don’t want to push down on the grounds so hard that you extract more from the grounds than necessary. Pushing the coffee cake at the bottom of the pot to a degree where you push water out of the grounds, you will get some over extraction which make the coffee bitterer. If you want stronger coffee from a French press, it’s better to steep it for longer or use a slightly smaller grind.
Why push a French press plunger down at all?
Why should you bother pushing the plunger to the bottom at all? Doesn’t the coffee have to pass through the filter anyways, no matter what the position is? Why would you bother? Sure it isn’t difficult to do but does it even matter?
Pushing down the plunger on a French press stops the brewing process, keeping the extraction/taste constant. It also makes pouring easier and faster.
Well, the filter screen on the end of the plunger doesn’t only filter the grounds from the brew, it also helps to stop the brewing process. If the coffee grounds are still intermingling with the water, the extraction process keeps going. You don’t want the coffee to keep brewing the whole time it’s in the pot. Maybe you don’t want to drink it immediately or your cup isn’t big enough to fit all of it at the same time. Coffee has to be brewed to the point it’s good. Keeping it brewing after that point is only going to make it worse.
While pushing down the plunger of a French press doesn’t remove the grounds from the brewer, it does limit the interaction the grounds have with the water to a large degree to the point the brewing process pretty much stops.
Also, if you don’t push down the plunger, the metal rod is just sticking out to a point where it’s in the way and is making pouring more difficult. All the grounds will pool up at the bottom of the filter when pouring. Because of that, the water has to pass through the grounds one more time extracting even more and probably making the brew worse. It also really slows down the pour rate to an annoying trickle.
It just takes a few seconds to push the plunger down and there is no benefit to not doing it.
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.