How to Brew Coffee Using a Stovetop Percolator

Stovetop Percolator

In a world filled with instant coffee, single-serve coffee machines, and coffee makers filled with more technology than the space shuttle, sometimes it’s nice to go a little “old-school” and make a cup of Joe like your grandparents, and their grandparents likely did.

A stovetop percolator is a throwback to a completely different era – a different time, a slower time, a more laid-back time, the kind of time many of us would like to return to (at least as much as we can).

If you’ve decided to try this retro coffeemaker but aren’t quite sure where to start, you’ll want to check out all the inside info we share below.

How to Make Coffee With a Stovetop Percolator

The basic steps to brewing coffee using a percolator are:

  1. Coffee Ratio – 1 tablespoon of coffee to a cup of water
  2. Add water to the percolator
  3. Add coffee grounds to the percolator
  4. Heat slowly on medium, then reduce to low (don’t boil)
  5. Brew on low for 10 minutes
  6. Remove from heat
  7. Remove grounds
  8. Pour a cup off coffee (add cream and/or sugar if desired)

What is a Stovetop Percolator?

The earliest known iteration of the stovetop percolator popped on the scene all the way back in 1819 when a young French tinsmith came up with a simple, straightforward, and some would even say crude design for this kind of coffee-making tech.

That early design was tinkered with and toyed with for several decades, and in 1865 (right at the end of the American Civil War) the percolator we all know and love today was patented by James Nasson.

Think of a stovetop percolator as a big kettle with several chambers inside. One of these chambers (near the top of the kettle) holds your fresh ground coffee. A reservoir in the bottom of the kettle holds your water close to the heat source.

The water heats up and pushes through a narrow pipe onto the grounds. The water then “perks” through the coffee before cooling (slightly) and falling back down into a separate chamber.

It’s a slower way to make a cup of coffee than today’s souped-up coffee machines. But many people swear by the flavor you can coax out of this old-school approach.

Why a Stovetop Percolator?

There are a couple of big advantages to using a stovetop percolator, including:

Flavor – As highlighted a moment ago, there’s nothing quite like the taste of coffee made in a well-designed percolator. It’s rich, robust, and absolutely brimming with flavors; you lose in a faster (and often hotter) coffee-making process.

Practical – Stovetop percolators work anywhere, at any time, even if there’s no electricity to tap into. Cowboys brewed up coffee with nothing more than a campfire and a trust percolator!

Easy to Use – You don’t need to fiddle with buttons, timers, or bells and whistles to get your coffee right with a percolator. It’s about as “set it and forget it” as they get.

Coffee Stays at the Perfect Temp – Because of the way stovetop percolators are made, your brewed coffee is going to stay at the perfect temperature a whole lot longer than it would have otherwise. Not only will it hold the right high temps, it’ll also maintain its flavor. It’ll never taste burnt or like it was brewed a second time.

If you are camping and need to brew some great coffee, check out my article on how to brew coffee with a campfire coffee percolator.

How to Brew Coffee Using a Stovetop Percolator

Now that we’ve covered what a stovetop percolator is and why you’d want to use one let’s get into the nuts and bolts of using this coffee-making setup.

Start with the Right Ratio of Coffee to Water

Straight out of the gate, you need to be sure you’re using the right water ratio to ground coffee.

This ratio makes a world of difference, especially since the stovetop percolator will deliver a bolder, more flavorful, and more robust cup of coffee to begin with.

As a general rule of thumb, start with using a tablespoon of coffee for every cup of water you’re brewing. You can shake that ratio up later – more grounds per cup of water or left – to dial in exactly how you want your coffee to taste.

Add Water First, Then Your Grounds

It’s easier to fill the reservoir on your stovetop percolator before you start messing with any of your coffee grounds.

Find the fill area for your reservoir and add cold water. Cold water is important, though. It won’t pick up any off flavors from your water heating system.

Heat Slowly on Medium, Then Flip to Low

Getting your brew temps right is one huge piece of the success puzzle when learning how to brew coffee using a stovetop percolator.

Many people think they have to crack their heat source all the way. Some folks what to speed the brewing process with higher heat, too.

That’s not the way this thing works.

Keep medium, even heat, and you’ll be a whole lot happier. Give your percolator time to work its magic.

As soon as you notice water bubbling into the globe part of your stovetop percolator, you’ll want to bring that heat temp down to low. Brew at too hot a temp, and you’ll end up with bitter coffee, even if you’ve done everything else right.

Brew for 10 Minutes (Give or Take)

All you’ve got to do after dropping the temp down to low is let that percolator handle the heavy lifting for you.

Give it ten minutes or so (maybe less, maybe longer, depending on how much water you’re turning into coffee), and you should be good to go.

You’ll know your percolator is ready to come off the heat when you start to see steam. That means the brewing process is over, and if you don’t move quickly, you’ll boil – and add a bitter flavor too – your coffee.

Pull Your Percolator Off the Heat; let Sit for a Moment or Two

You’ve made it this far, and now you’re in the home stretch.

Simply pull that coffee maker off the heat and let it side for a couple of moments (maybe a minute or two). This’ll give the percolator enough time to cool down so you can handle it without running the risk of burning yourself.

Remove Your Wet Grounds

Now – before you pour a cup of coffee – you want to remove the used-up grounds.

Almost all quality percolators have a quick retrieval basket that lets you pop out the soggy hockey puck of grounds in no time. This is a key piece of the puzzle, though.

Forget to pitch your grounds first, and when you pour a cup of coffee, they might end up all over your counter (or worse, in your coffee cup).

Enjoy Your Delicious Coffee!

That’s it – that’s pretty much all there is to make the best-tasting coffee you’ve ever had.

As you can see, learning how to work a stovetop percolator isn’t the toughest thing to master in the world. Truth be told, with just a little bit of practice (and the inside info above), you should get the hang of working a percolator in a couple of days, max.

Enjoy!

Tips and Tricks for Better Stovetop Percolator Coffee

Of course, if you want to take your percolator coffee to the next level, there are a couple of tips and tricks you’ll want to keep in your back pocket.

Grind Your Own Beans

If you’re serious about making great coffee – not just good coffee, not just gas station or even fancy quick-stop coffee – you need to be grinding your beans.

As soon as beans are ground, they start to dry up and lose a bit of the oil and flavors that make them taste so good. Sometimes this takes a couple of days, sometimes this takes a couple of hours.

No matter what, though, you’re going to lose a lot of punch and a lot of zip if you’re only ever brewing coffee with pre-ground beans.

Get your hands on a quality burr grinder (they don’t cost much) and a bag of good beans. You’ll taste the difference with your first sip – and will smell the difference while your coffee is brewing – and it’s unlikely you’ll ever go back.

Grind your own beans. It’ll improve your coffee in a major way!

Use Quality Water

Secondly, you want to ensure you use quality water when you brew coffee in your stovetop percolator.

We mentioned that cold water is important (water heaters always impart some off flavors), but quality water goes beyond that.

Filtering your water before sending it through your stovetop percolator can transform a so-so cup of coffee into something special.

Purified water strips out all the flavor-tainting compounds that would have been hiding invisibly in your regular water supply. Some of these flavor tainters wouldn’t have even shown up until you applied a little hit into the mix.

You’ll also eliminate odd and off odors, heavy metals and minerals, and anything else that can change the way your coffee is supposed to taste.

Best of all, filtering water doesn’t take very long to be wildly effective.

Slap a filter on your faucet or invest in a fridge filter jug. You’ll be drinking – and brewing – much cleaner water and instantly notice the improvement.

Be on the Lookout for Steam

Brewing with your stovetop percolator is easier and tougher than brewing with new, modern coffee machines.

On the one hand, a lot of how a stovetop percolator works operates on “set it and forget it principles”. There aren’t a lot of buttons or controls you have to fool around with to get the coffee you want.

On the other hand, you need to be sure that you’re brewing your coffee at the right temperatures – and temperature control is all on you.

Ideally, your stovetop percolator would be humming along with water temperatures between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.

Any cooler than that, the brewing process will be almost agonizingly slow. Any hotter coffee flavor compounds will scorch, burn, and become bitter.

You do not want to boil the water in your percolator, that’s for certain!

If you see any steam coming out of your setup, you need to get that thing off the heat source ASAP. That’s a surefire sign that your coffee is done and you’re ready.

Brewing Coffee With A Percolator In A Nutshell

Well, there you are – (almost) everything there is to know about brewing great cups of coffee with a stovetop percolator.

As long as you leverage the info we shared in this guide – using quality beans that are fresh ground, using cold and filtered water, and keeping an eye on the temp – you should be able to work your new percolator masterfully.

The step-by-step process we outlined will also work with almost every percolator under the sun. You won’t have to relearn how to use this coffee maker every time you decide to get a new one (or make coffee at a friends after convincing them to try one, too).

Happy brewing from here on out!

Christopher Mize
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