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March 2000 Issue
The Insurgence of the French Press in the American Home
by Chris Schaefer
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Making a place for itself in the homes of today's American coffee drinkers is the French press. Also known as the "plunger pot" due to the screen filtered plunger that separates the grounds before serving, the French press adds a touch of style to any kitchen. And its ease of use makes it a wonderful addition to just about anyone's lifestyle -- from dorm-locked college students to home business people to office types.

The plunger pot works by steeping coarsely ground coffee in hot water. It is very important to mention how hot the water should be. Coffee, an organic substance, can be easily burnt if given the proper conditions. Therefore, when using this method of coffee brewing, bring water up to a slow boil and then down again. Water boils at 100 degrees C and water 5 degrees below boiling will work well. Pour the heated water over the grounds and let it sit for roughly four minutes. The final step displays the origins of the name "plunger pot." When ready, slowly depressing the plunger will release and filter the beverage. The coffee has been made and is now ready to be served.

While this may all seem very romantic and yet scientific, the plunger pot has its invariable advantages and disadvantages. First, coffee made with this method is richer as it contains more oils from the grounds. These are the same oils that are somewhat lost in the process of automatic drip machines and their paper filters. And, unlike machines with metallic filters, the action of pressing the grounds against the plunger's screen also aids in coffee extraction. This taste sensation and coffee quality, however, comes at a cost.

Many modern drip machines today have built-in controls and timers allowing their owner to prepare the coffee the night before and awake to the aroma of the freshly brewed java. The French press method lacks this sophistication and demands on-the-spot preparation. And if you're the type who likes to make a whole pot and let it sit so you can come back later, you will be disappointed. Plunger pots are limited in their capacities. With an extra few minutes of preparation, however, it is possible to prepare multiple pots and store the coffee in a thermos.

One final advantage to note is coffee freshness. Coffee made with a French Press -- and drunk soon thereafter -- will always be fresher than that prepared in an automatic drip machine. Common drip machines have hot plates that the coffee sits on while brewing. This inevitably leads to burnt coffee. While you can store your plunger pot coffee in another container and place it on a hot plate, a well insulated carafe or vacuum thermos is recommended instead.

Today's French Press pots are available at fine housewares stores, department stores, catalogues, cafes, and on the Web. Prices vary but an average press pot can be had for as low as 15US$ to 30US$. Bodum, a Swiss company, has perhaps the largest and most artistic selection of press pots. You can find them on the World Wide Web at http://www.bodum.ch. Plunger pots are used world-wide, make wonderful gifts, and are fun to use. They add a touch of class and uniqueness to the any coffee drinker's collection.

Plunger pots are, however, not the only kind of non-electric coffee brewers. In the same family are such devices as moka pots, stove top caffettieras, and cold-water extraction vessels. All are unique and each has its advantages and disadvantages. When comparing these other methods to that of the plunger pot, one must look at how each method prepares coffee differently.

For those who live a fast-paced lifestyle but still crave the strength and richness of espresso, are moka pots and stove-top espresso makers (caffettieras). Both work on the same principle. Water, stored in a lower chamber, is forced up a funnel and into the awaiting grounds via heat and pressure. Infusion of the coffee grounds take place and the mixture is forced against another filter. What results next defines whether the device is a moka pot or stove-top espresso. Moka pots allow the brew to dribble down into an upper chamber through yet more funnels. When finished, the coffee can be poured into cups and served. For stove-top espresso, the brew is forced out of external funnels and demitasse cups can be used to catch the resulting beverage. Both methods produce a rich and strong espresso-like brew.

The disadvantages of the using moka pots and stove-top espresso is quantity delivered. While the largest plunger pot might be able to serve 5, maybe more, people, the "stove-tops" are limited to 4 at best. And while the coffee maybe stronger and richer than that delivered by a French press, it's very temperamental. Coffee ground coarsely and not packed tightly into the filter baskets will yield the best results. Plunger pot coffee drinkers can often get away with using medium grind or that for automatic drip machines -- which brings us to the cold-water extraction method.

The cold-water extraction method, while the most simple method of making coffee, not only yields the greatest quantity but also takes the longest time. It works by grinding up a pound or so of your favourite beans. The beans are in a bath for 12 to 24 hours before being filtered into a large vessel. The result is a strong, syrupy extract which lacks in acidic bitterness commonly found in ill-prepared coffee beverages. This extract can be stored and used for such things as coffee flavouring, mixed with hot water for the morning's first mug of joe, added to liquors and the like. Its nature allows for easily preparing multiple beverages of varying strength. Its obvious disadvantage, however is the time to prepare the extract. But when put in light of other matters, the large quantity of extract available after the process finishes adds up to convenience and practicality.

The press pot, stove-top makers, and cold-water extraction methods are not new to the coffee world though they have only recently begun establishing a home for themselves in American kitchens and cafes. But some questions yet remain. As the popularity of coffee increases -- and public awareness also increases -- will a continued market be seen for these products? Certainly their ease and romance begs that they stay for awhile, but without the greatness of being popular icons, they may find some struggles finding friends on the shelves next to your toaster or rice-steamer.

Americans are entranced by gadgets and convenience-added appliances. Simple, even artistic, the methods written here almost contradict American's opinions of what a coffee maker should be. If the French press and brewing devices like it have made it this far, there may very well be a happy ending to this story.

Directions for making plunger pot coffee:

  1. For every 6 oz. (180 ml) of water, use 7 gms. coffee.
  2. Bring water to a low boil, and bring down.
  3. Pour water over grounds in the press pot.
  4. Cover press pot and let stand for 4 minutes.
  5. Depress plunger gently and slowly.
  6. Serve in preheated cups.
      • For stronger coffee, use more coffee grounds.
      • For less strong coffee, add water to the final brew.



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