How to Make Coffee
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
The inventor of coffee.
Update: If you're looking for 12 volt cooking appliances, I have a number of them reviewed at my blog.
Hurricane update: As another hurricane nears the U.S., this page is again getting a lot of hits. The information on this page is presented in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion, but it's all good information. You can still make yourself a good cup of coffee, even if the power goes out. Stay safe, but take a moment to relax with a good cup of coffee.
I am frequently amazed by the number of people I encounter who believe that it is either impossible or difficult to make coffee without the use of electricity. I suppose that it's an inevitable byproduct of the popularity of electric automatic drip coffee makers. The use of such devices is, indeed, an extremely convenient means of making this morning necessity. However, there are other equally convenient methods, none of which require electricity, and which will produce coffee as good, or better than, the electrified variety to which so many have become accustomed.
This topic invariably comes up in two different contexts. One is among those who enjoy camping, either in a tent or an RV. I've encountered many RV'ers who are unwilling to even consider camping in non-electric sites, and the hesitancy is often a result of the mistaken belief that electricity is a necessary ingredient for coffee.
In addition, many people who experience a power outage for some reason believe that the power outage means that they must forego the important morning ritual of making coffee. Indeed, for some people, this has caused them to believe that the minor inconvenience of a power outage was actually a major catastrophe. People have been known to check into hotels merely because the power was out. Presumably, they brought their home coffee maker with them to the hotel. As you shall see, this panicked reaction is completely unnecessary. One can continue to live in comfort despite the power being out, and your normal morning necessities can easily be produced by non-electric means.
Other people sometimes purchase electric generators for the main purpose of making coffee. Having an electric generator is a very prudent thing to do, and I have one myself. But it's very wasteful to purchase one simply to make coffee. And indeed, as will be explained in more detail in my forthcoming article on emergency power, if the ability to make coffee is one of your criteria, you might spend hundreds of dollars more than you need to. While emergency power is important, it really has very little to do with the equally important need to make coffee, and the two subjects really shouldn't be intertwined.
The caption above under the portrait of Thomas Edison is false. Edison invented the electric lightbulb and countless other useful devices. But he did not invent coffee, although many people seem to blindly believe that he did. Electricity has been a ubiquitous part of our lives only for the past century or so. But coffee has been around since time immemorial, long before the power of electricity had been harnessed. So obviously, the ancients once knew the secrets of non-electric coffee. Like much ancient knowledge, these secrets are apparently in danger of being lost. The purpose of this article is to share with you these vital ancient secrets.
Electricity involves the flow of electrons. But these electrons do not flow into the actual coffee. The electricity is used merely as a source of heat to further the cooking process. This heat can be generated in many different ways.
We must first dispel the greatest myth regarding non-electric coffee. Many people apparently realize, to their credit, that it is possible to make instant coffee without the use of electricity. But unfortunately, many of them believe that instant coffee is the only type of coffee that can be made non-electrically. As you shall see, this is simply untrue. There are countless methods to produce a fine cup of coffee, none of which involve the use of instant coffee.
During his years as a commercial pitchman, Robert Young encountered scores of grumpy people who brusquely proclaimed that they liked only "real coffee". To paraphrase his response, let me reassure you, "but non-electric coffee is real coffee!"
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As noted above, the electrons delivered by your friendly electric utility are not actually deposited into your coffee. The electricity is there for one reason, and one reason alone, and that is to provide heat. Using electricity to provide heat is trivially simple: You run an electric current through a resistance, and heat is produced. Mister Ohm discovered that the resulting heat was proportional to the current squared times the resistance. So if you have a large wire running into your house delivering large amounts of current from a distant power plant, it is indeed convenient to use this current to generate heat for all sorts of things, including the making of coffee.
If the power goes out, it is not necessary to reproduce the electric current in order to make coffee. It is merely necessary to come up with a source of heat.
Fortunately, long before Edison, some anonymous caveman invented a reliable method of producing heat, and this means of generating heat has been refined through the ages. This old method of producing heat was, and still is, known as "fire". Fire is still an excellent method to produce the heat that you will need for your coffee.
The early caveman probably harnessed fire in the form of a burning piece of wood around which he huddled for warmth. Over the years, the concept was refined, as man discovered different fuels that could be used. Among these fuels were various hydrocarbons that flowed from the ground. These hydrocarbons were later routed through pipes or put in bottles for convenient delivery to the location where the fire was required.
If you wish, you can use a wood fire for most of the methods described here. However, once again, a wood fire is not the only non-electric method of generating heat. In most cases, a hydrocarbon such as propane or natural gas is more convenient.
If you have an electric stove, then before addressing how you will make your coffee and toast, you will first need to come up with an alternative method of generating the necessary heat. This subject will be addressed below. As you are probably aware, the electric stove, like your electric coffee maker, will not work if the power is out.
But if your home or RV has a gas stove and a source of gas, then this problem is already solved, because you can use the gas stove, even in the absence of electricity. Such stoves are common in RV's, and are commonly fed with a bottle of propane. In the case of your gas stove at home, you probably receive the gas from your friendly natural gas company. It is, of course, possible that due to a disaster, that the gas lines will cease functioning. However, gas outages are much less common than electric power outages, so it's likely that you will have gas available, even though the power is out.
If you have a gas range and look behind it, you will probably see that it's plugged into an electric outlet. But don't despair. Most gas ranges have some features that require electricity, such as a clock or an electric light. In addition, most modern gas stoves have an electric starter. But in the vast majority of cases, these electrical features are mere conveniences, and are not necessary for the safe operation of the stove.
You'll need to be stoic and simply deal with the fact that the electric clock and lights on your stove are not working. This should not be a major concern. A slightly larger concern is lighting the stove, since many modern stoves require electricity to operate the starter. But this slight problem can be overcome quite easily.
In a bygone era, most gas stoves had a "pilot light". This was a tiny flame that kept burning all the time, even when the stove was turned off. When you turned on one of the burners, the pilot light caused the burner to ignite. No electricity was used in the process.
For various reasons, this scheme was abandoned in most modern gas ranges. Instead of the pilot light, an electric current is used to produce a spark, which ignites the gas when you turn on the burner. You need to come up with a replacement for this electric spark.
Fortunately, there is a convenient replacement, which is known as the "match". You can light a gas stove with a match, even when the electricity is out. Really! You simply turn on the burner in the normal fashion. Then, you hold a match near the burner, and the burner will light. Once it is lit, it will keep burning normally. This may seem like common sense to some, but it is apparently one of those secrets of the ancients that is in danger of becoming lost.
There are a certain number of people who apparently believe that it is somehow "unsafe" to light a stove using a match. This is not true-you are replicating the exact process of the electric starter. There is gas, and you merely provide a source of ignition, which is exactly what the electric starter is there for. The electric starter is more convenient, but it is not any more safe.
If you really believe that it is unsafe, then please don't take my word for it. There's a lot of misinformation on the internet, and I suppose someone could devise an evil web page containing tricks that will cause you to blow up your stove. If you have doubts, call your friendly gas company and ask them. They'll assure you that it's perfectly OK.
Note: what I have said above applies to the burners on top of your stove. They can be lit with a match. In a few cases, it might not work. But it is never unsafe (provided, of course, that you dispose of the match properly, and don't simply throw the hot match into the wastepaper basket). I am not aware of any safe method to light the oven of a gas range. It's probably not unsafe to try-it simply won't work. Of course, if you have an old-fashioned range with a pilot light, then both the burners and the oven will continue to work flawlessly during a power outage.
The prudent reader has now probably concluded that it might be a good idea to have some matches around the house, so that it's possible to cook during a power outage.
This brings us to the first legitimate reason why it might be difficult to make coffee during a power outage. If the power is out, your electric stove will be just as useless as your electric coffee maker. But before you resign yourself to checking into the Motel 6 with your coffee maker, please give some thought to obtaining an inexpensive non-electric stove for use in emergencies. It will cost much less than you might think. Indeed, it will probably cost less than a single night's hotel stay.
There are many methods of cooking that do not involve your normal home stove. If you already own an outdoor gas grill, it can probably be used. I suppose a charcoal grill could also be used, but it wouldn't be particularly convenient. I suppose you could just start a campfire in the backyard, but that might be frowned upon in some urban locales.
The best bet for most people is to buy a small camping stove. There is a wide variety of such stoves on the market, and they essentially replicate the burners on a home gas stove. You hook up the stove, turn on the burner, light it with a match, and then cook on it as you normally would with the big stove.
In general, there are two types of camping stove available. They all work about the same way, but the main difference is the type of fuel, and the two different types of fuel are liquid fuel or propane (or sometimes butane).
Each type of stove, liquid fuel or propane, has its own adherents. Indeed, sometimes those adherents have a nearly religious zeal in favor of their type of fuel. In reality, both types of stove work very well, and you really can't go wrong in your choice of fuel. Like Hank Hill, my personal preference is for propane, since it seems to me that it's a bit more convenient. Others, on the other hand, believe that liquid fuel is more convenient. The truth is probably that they're both about the same.
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Some (but not all) of the liquid fuel stoves have a slight advantage in one respect. Most liquid fuel stoves use "white gas", which is sometimes known as "Coleman fuel" after its most famous supplier. This fuel comes in a convenient one-gallon can, and is sold at many retailers, such as hardware stores, department stores, and probably many supermarkets. It is very similar, but not identical, to normal unleaded gasoline.
Some (but not all) liquid fuel stoves can also use normal gasoline, of the same type that you put in your car. So in an emergency, fuel for a "dual fuel" stove might be more readily available. So that's one factor that you may wish to consider in your choice of a stove.
Liquid fuel stoves (especially the dual-fuel models) seem to be slightly more expensive than their propane brethren, so that's another factor you may wish to consider.
Propane is also sold at hardware stores, discount stores, and even supermarkets, in convenient one pound cylinders. It is also probably sold at your local Kwik-E-Mart in larger 20 pound tanks. These are usually located outside the store in a locked cage. You buy your first tank, and then exchange it for a new one when the first one is empty. (If you use a lot of propane, this isn't the most economical way of doing it, but it's very convenient for the occasional purchaser.)
Once you've made the decision as to your preferred fuel, it's time to start shopping for a stove.
These stoves start at about $20. To give you some idea what's available, here are some links to various stoves at amazon.com. You can click on the pictures below for more information about these particular models.
This model is about as simple as they get. This model is designed to be used with the 20 pound bottles from the Kwik-E-Mart:
In addition to the stove itself, with a stove of this type, you will need to buy the hose to connect to the propane tank. You will need a hose like this one:
Of course, you will also need to get the tank at the local Kwik-E-Mart.
A somewhat more convenient method would be to purchase a stove of this type:
As you can see, this type of stove uses the small one pound propane tanks, which are available for about $3. You simply hook up the tank and it's ready to go.
The next step up, and something that looks a bit more like the familiar stove at home, is the two-burner stove. These generally start for about $50. This Coleman stove is very popular and is a typical example of this type:
As you can see, this model also uses the one pound propane bottles, and can be hooked up directly, without any additional hoses.
If you do buy a stove that uses the one pound bottles, it might be useful to have the option of using the larger 20 pound tanks. You can do so with an adapter like this one. It will allow you to use a camp stove or lantern that normally uses one pound tanks, and run it from a large 20 pound tank:
If your preference is for a liquid fuel stove, then this Coleman model is a good choice. It is a "dual fuel" model, so it can be used with normal unleaded gasoline:
While the automatic drip coffee maker is probably not the way to make the very best cup of coffee, it is relatively foolproof. You simply put in the coffee grounds and the water, turn it on, and the coffee makes itself. As long as you start with about the right amount of coffee, there's really not much that can go wrong. No matter how sleep deprived you might be, you can be assured of a reasonably good cup of coffee.
Therefore, it is quite understandable that many people are enamored of their automatic drip coffee maker. Indeed, I am one of those people, and every day as I make my electric coffee, I give thanks that Joe DiMaggio invented it. For my personal non-electric coffee needs, I rely on other methods. But I understand those who would prefer automatic drip coffee even during a power outage.
And fortunately enough, those who prefer automatic drip coffee can continue to enjoy their coffee brewing method of choice, even during a power outage. A drip coffee maker non electric version is available, thanks to this ingenious coffee maker from Coleman:
As you can see, this coffee maker works just like the familiar one in your kitchen, with the exception that it doesn't require electricity. You simply put it on your gas stove, put in the coffee grounds and water, light the stove, and it makes the familiar automatic drip coffee.
For some reason, many people believe that non-electric coffee is synonymous with percolated coffee. I find this attitude rather strange, since I grew up with an electric percolator. Once again, people realize that there are non-electric percolators available, but they mistakenly assume that the non-electric percolator is the only non-electric method for preparing coffee. Once again, the reluctance to accept the percolator is somewhat understandable. While a percolator can make a good cup of coffee, it is not nearly as foolproof as the automatic drip coffee maker. Therefore, it is very easy to make a terrible cup of coffee with a percolator. The anti-percolator crowd sometimes speaks in terms of the "essential oils" in the coffee being destroyed in the percolation process. (I don't know what happens to the non-essential oils.)
Making coffee with a percolator requires practice, and has a certain learning curve. You need to let the coffee perk just the right amount of time, and this requires some trial and error. It's probably not the sort of skill you should try to master when you drowsily wake up to discover that the power is out.
If you do decide to master this skill, then there are many non-electric percolators available, all of which can be used on a gas stove or other heat source. Here's one example:
Again, the percolator is not the only device that can be used to make coffee. If you prefer non-percolated coffee, you have many other options.
My personal favorite is an unusual design that relies upon the pressure generated by boiling water. This unit has two chambers, the bottom of which holds the water, and the top holds the finished coffee. When the water is heated, it rises through the coffee grounds (the opposite of how the drip coffee maker works) and is collected in the top chamber. These are rather common in Europe and South America, but are rarely seen in North America. They come from a number of manufacturers, most of which are in Italy.
Most of these are described as "espresso makers". Don't let this name scare you away. "Espresso" simply refers to the fact that they are fast, and is the name of a finely ground type of coffee. If you use your normal brand of coffee, they will work just fine, and make coffee better than your drip coffee maker. Here is an example of this type of coffee maker:
This type of coffee maker is by no means the only non-electric non-percolating coffee maker available. It's just my personal favorite. The possibilities are really endless.
There is one final type of device that makes an excellent cup of coffee, with or without electricity, and that device is the "French press". Some of these are made in France, and others are made elsewhere. A French press is a container in which you add hot water to your coffee grounds, give it a stir, and let it set for a few minutes. Then, you insert a plunger which presses the coffee grounds to the bottom of the container, leaving the coffee at the top. French presses come in a wide variety of sizes, from single cup models to larger ones which will make several cups. Some are made of glass, and others are from unbreakable materials. These are available in various sizes, but the following one makes eight cups:
Using the French press is a bit more work than other methods, but it is quite convenient, and makes an excellent and foolproof cup of coffee.
As you have seen, many of the methods of making coffee without electricity require a modest investment. In most cases, that investment is much less than the cost of the electric generator that some people think they need to make coffee. And the cost is probably less than a night in a hotel. Still, some persons are frugal and wish to avoid those expenses. Fortunately, even for those persons, a good cup of coffee is still within their reach!
The first method is to make "cowboy coffee", which actually produces a good cup of coffee with a little bit of practice. In any convenient pot or pan, you bring water to a boil. Then, you remove the water from the heat, and simply put the coffee grounds right in the water. Cover the pan and let it steep for a few minutes. The grounds will settle to the bottom, so you need to carefully pour the coffee without disturbing the grounds. An alternative is to strain it through a clean piece of cloth or one of the paper filters from your electric coffee maker.
One method of doing so is simply letting the grounds settle, and then carefully pouring the coffee into a cup. Most of the grounds settle to the bottom, but there are always a few stubborn particles that continue to float. Therefore, if you use this method, you need to resign yourself to the fact that there will be a few grounds in your coffee.
Another method is to filter the coffee by pouring it through a clean piece of cloth, or even one of the coffee filters that normally goes in your electric coffee maker. With a bit of practice, you'll be able to get all of the particles and have a remarkably good cup of coffee with no investment in special coffee makers.
Finally, in an emergency, it is actually possible to use your normal electric coffee maker. Add the coffee grounds, but do not add the water. In a separate pan, heat some water, almost to a boil. Carefully and slowly pour the water over the coffee grounds. The coffee will drip into its container in the normal fashion. Your coffee maker is called a "drip" coffee maker for a reason-the water normally drips slowly through the grounds. Therefore, replicating this process manually can be tedious. But it will work.
While the bother is minimal, it does take a little bit of work to make coffee, with or without electricity. As noted above, instant coffee is always an option. Instant coffee is not nearly as good as what Robert Young's friends would call "real coffee", but it needn't be much worse. The secret of instant coffee is selecting the brand of coffee, and using extremely hot (almost boiling) water to make it. The importance of extremely hot water cannot be over emphasized. To make good instant coffee, you need to use water that is almost boiling. Since you probably don't want to drink boiling hot coffee, it is best to prepare it with boiling water, but not completely fill the cup. Then, after the coffee is completely mixed, add a little bit of cold water to bring it to the right temperature.
It is also important to use a quality instant coffee. In my experience, the best instant coffee is actually a hybrid between instant coffee and regular coffee, namely, the "coffee bag". The coffee bag looks like a tea bag, but contains coffee. The most popular brand, Folgers, uses half instant coffee along with half coffee grounds inside the bag. Coffee made with one of these bags (again, using extremely hot water) is almost indistinguishable from "real coffee":
For standard instant coffee, my recommendation is also Folgers Crystals, which in my opinion is the best available instant coffee. Again, the importance of extremely hot water cannot be over emphasized. Simply add the crystals to extremely hot water and stir. Then, add cold water as desired:
Another possible option for instant coffee are the flavored coffees of General Foods. They actually contain mostly things other than coffee, but they are easy to make, taste quite good, and include enough coffee to make them worthwhile in an emergency. They come in a variety of flavors, and are a handy item to have on hand in case of emergency:
I hope this article has served to dispel the myths surrounding the subject of non-electric coffee. A power outage or camping without electric hookups need not prevent you from enjoying an excellent cup of coffee. In a future article, I will discuss electric generators. However, now that you can enjoy your coffee, the generator becomes somewhat less critical, and you'll be able to take the time to shop around, rather than rushing into buying the first one you see, simply because you think you need it to make coffee.
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