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How to Make Coffee in an Electric Percolator

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Making a Coffee in an Electric Percolator

Until the rise of the drip coffee brewer in the 1970s, the percolator was the top way to make a cup of joe at home. But are they still worth using today—and how do you go about brewing up a pot? This article will answer all your questions about this classic coffee maker, along with some helpful tips on how to brew the best cup.

What is a Percolator?

A percolator is a simple coffee brewer that uses gravity and steam to continuously cycle water through coffee grounds to extract the flavor. Fans of percolator coffee enjoy the strength of the brew, which is more similar to stovetop espresso or French press than drip coffee. The down-side is they can easily over-extract the coffee if you don’t monitor the temperature and brew time closely enough.

You can find a few different styles of percolator. Self-heating or electric percolators come with a bottom plate that heats the unit once it’s plugged in and turned on. Other versions are called stovetop percolators or manual percolators. These need an external heat source, though that could be anything from a burner on the stove to a campfire, depending on where you are.

How Do Electric Percolators Work?

There are two chambers inside a percolator, connected by a small tube. Once heat is applied, the water in the lower chamber boils and rises through the tube into the top chamber, where it drips down through the coffee grounds in the steel filter basket and back to the bottom. This process is repeated as long as you want to get the desired brew strength, though some electric percolators will stop on their own.

As the water moves from one chamber to the other it builds up pressure, which helps to extract more flavor from the beans. This makes it a hybrid of the boiling brew method used in Turkish or Cowboy coffee and the pressure-brew method common to espresso.

How Much Coffee to Use in a Percolator

Percolators use a similar coffee-to-water ratio to brewing methods like drip. Most people use 1 tablespoon of grounds for every 8 ounces of water. You can adjust this based on your tastes, using less coffee for a weaker brew and more coffee for a stronger one.

How to Use an Electric Coffee Percolator

  1. Measure out how much coffee you’ll need and grind it coarse. Coffee that’s too fine can escape through the filter. At best, this will give you sludge in your cup, and at worst it can clog the pipe.
  2. Pour the water into the reservoir, then insert the filter and put in your ground coffee.
  3. Plug the percolator in, and turn it on if there’s a separate power switch. It will immediately begin heating the water and should start to brew within the first minute.
  4. After about 3-6 minutes (depending on the model and size) the brew cycle is finished. Many electric percolators have a light on the front that tells you when it’s ready.
  5. Unplug the percolator and let it cool down before removing and cleaning the parts.

Some electric percolators allow you to adjust the length of the brew, but this won’t be the case for all of them. If your coffee is bitter, it’s probably set to brew too long. You can stop the brew early by turning off or unplugging the percolator. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hover over it, either. Just set a kitchen timer for the amount of time you want to brew when you start the perk like you would do with a French press or pour-over.

How to Use A Coffee Percolator When Camping

Manual percolators require a bit more attention than their electric counterparts. They also take a bit longer to brew—usually around 10-15 minutes, as opposed to 5 or 6. The advantage, of course, is their versatility. You can use the same method described below to brew with a manual percolator on a stovetop.

  1. Measure out the right amount of coffee and grind it coarsely. If you won’t have an outlet for a grinder, you can bring a hand grinder or pre-grind the coffee before you leave.

  2. Pour the water in the pot and add the ground coffee to the basket, then put the basket and lid on the pot.

  3. Put your percolator on your heat source. This can be a campfire with a grate, a camp stove, or a grill. If using a camp stove, the medium heat setting is the best option.

  4. Watch the pot while it heats. Once it starts to boil, you’ll see water start bubbling out the top of the pipe. Lower the heat or move the pot away from the center of the fire once you see this begin to happen.

  5. The water coming out of the top will get darker as the brew goes on. After around 10-15 minutes, it should be at a good strength for serving. The liquid at this point should be the dark brown you expect from coffee.

  6. Remove the percolator from the heat and serve.

Many manual percolators are made entirely of stainless steel, especially those designed to go camping. This means the pot will get very hot once it’s been sitting on the heat for a few minutes. While some have handles meant to stay cool to the touch, it’s still a good idea to keep a towel over your hand when you’re removing it from the heat to serve, just to avoid any potential burns.

Percolator Tips and Tricks

  • If you’re using a manual percolator, increase the temperature of the water gradually, and reduce the heat once the brew begins. You can do this by turning down the burner level on a stovetop, or by moving it further from the flames over a campfire. Controlling the temperature prevents over-extraction that can lead to a bitter taste.
  • If you see residue at the bottom of the pot, this means you’re grinding the beans too finely. Use a coarser setting the next time you brew.
  • Make sure you don’t overfill your percolator. If you do, it could overflow and cause quite a mess. Most percolators have a fill line inside that tells you the maximum water capacity.
  • Regardless of where you’re brewing, a medium heat level is best with a percolator. You don’t want the coffee to come to a full, rolling boil, as this can scald the coffee and result in a bitter, burnt taste. The ideal temperature for brewing coffee is around 195°F-205°F, a bit shy of the 212°F required to boil water. On the other hand, the coffee can end up under-extracted and weak if the temperature drops too low. This is why using a manual percolator can be tricky—it’s up to you to maintain the correct water temperature.
  • If you want to ensure the best taste, a thermometer could be a good option to test the temperature while you’re brewing. You can find clip-on thermometers at kitchen supply stores. Look for one with a long stem, if possible, to avoid burning yourself with steam while you’re testing the water temperature.

Bonus Tips for a Great Cup of Coffee

As with any brewing method, the best way to get a tasty cup is to grind your coffee immediately before brewing. Hand grinders give you this option even when you’re out on the trail, though they can be a bit tedious to use. It’s up to you whether a more aromatic and flavorful cup is worth the extra effort.

If you’re grinding at home, make sure you use a burr grinder. Blade grinders don’t do well with coarse grinds. The grind size on these models changes based on the length of the grind. A quick pulse will give you some large particles, but it will also create a lot of fine, smaller pieces. This inconsistency not only sets you up for an uneven brew, it makes it much more likely you’ll have grounds in your cup.

The kind of coffee you use is important, too. Medium roasts or city roasts tend to taste the best. Avoid using dark roasts, which are already more bitter than other beans. Light roasts can work, as well, though they likely won’t taste as good as with other brewing methods.

Keep in mind that percolators aren’t the best way to bring out subtle notes from your coffee, even in the hands of a trained and experienced barista. Because of this, you may want to avoid brewing beans with more delicate notes. They won’t necessarily taste bad—you just may not experience the full potential of the beans.

Coffees grown in Colombia and Brazil are generally going to taste the best when brewed in a percolator. These beans are naturally smooth and well-balanced, with rich chocolatey notes that suit the strong flavor. Some coffees from Central America and Indonesia can also taste quite delicious.

Generally, you’ll want to avoid beans grown in Papua New Guinea or Africa, especially Ethiopia and Kenya. These beans are known for their high acidity, which can become too pronounced in a percolator brew.

How to Clean Your Electric Percolator

After every brew, dump the used grounds out into the trash or compost heap, then remove any parts you can to clean individually. Rinse all components with warm, soapy water, making sure you remove any coffee residue and oils. You can use a pipe cleaner to get down inside the water pipe.

If you have an electric percolator, make sure you read the instructions for cleaning. Many can’t be submerged completely or you’ll risk damaging the heating elements. A damp sponge or washcloth is your best option. Manual percolators, on the other hand, require less care at the cleaning stage, though you’ll still want to avoid the dishwasher.

Once all the residue is wiped away, rinse away any soap and keep the lid open and the pieces separate so it can air dry. Make sure it’s completely dry before reassembling to avoid mustiness and bacteria growth.

Important Considerations

There’s more to the grind level than just whether it will escape through the filter. Some people suggest using medium-ground coffee and pairing it with a paper filter in the basket. This can be an option if you only have pre-ground coffee available, but it’s not the best way to get a good-tasting cup.

The finer coffee is ground, the more surface area it has. Given the length of the brew and the heat of the water in percolator coffee, using a medium or fine grind makes it very likely you’ll extract more compounds from the coffee than you want, including the very bitter notes that come through on the back end. 

This is known as “over-extraction,” and is the main reason people say percolator coffee doesn’t taste as good as other brewing methods.

Something else to keep in mind is that you can’t use electric and manual percolators interchangeably. Even if the heating element on the electric percolator is a separate piece, the bases of these pots aren’t designed to receive heat from other sources. 

They may contain additional electrical components, for one thing, and are often made of plastic or other materials that aren’t heat resistant. You should only use an electric percolator with the heat source provided with it for this reason.

Summary and Conclusion

A percolator lets you brew a strong cup of coffee anywhere, anytime. While electric models are faster and more convenient, they don’t allow you the same temperature control as manual percolators—basically, you’ll be at the whim of the percolator’s programmed brew cycle. Keep this in mind while you’re shopping. With the right percolator, the right coffee grind, and a bit of knowledge, you can make a delicious cup using one of these classic brewers.

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