Most people who try to make cowboy coffee end up with foul tasting, ground-filled coffee because they don’t know how to make cowboy coffee the right way.
Some things are a matter of preference, like strength and bitterness. Other things really should be done a certain way, like settling the grounds.
Cowboy coffee can be just as good as any brewed coffee, and the best part is that you won’t get any grounds in your cup…if you follow one trick that I’m going to teach you.
What is Cowboy Coffee?
Cowboy coffee is a way of brewing coffee without the use of a machine, press, or any specialized coffee equipment. The process involves mixing coffee grounds with hot water and decanting the brewed coffee from the coffee grounds.
The most common problem people have with cowboy coffee is removing the grounds properly, so they tend to think of cowboy coffee as containing grounds. This does not necessarily need to be the case if the grounds are removed the right way.
People also tend to think of cowboy coffee as being bitter and low quality. The bitterness is the result of adding coffee grounds to boiling water instead of letting the water cool about 10°F before adding the grounds.
Coffee is mostly water so if you’re using bad tasting water, you’re going to get bad tasting coffee. Let’s take a closer look at the aspects of water that make a difference when brewing coffee.
Using Water the Right Way
I have seen people who swear by boiling the coffee grounds in the water and others who think that’s blasphemy. The key is to understand the effect of boiling and how to do it right so you can decide for yourself which one your prefer.
When it comes to water, three factors will effect the taste:
The coffee you drink is almost entirely water so using good quality water is crucial to getting good tasting coffee. But since you’re likely out camping, you probably don’t have too many options, so I won’t belabor this point. I will only say: use the best quality water you have available to you.
If you’re going backpacking and want to learn more about water purification tablets (including their different tastes), check out my article on water purification tablets.
The length of time the water has contact with the coffee grounds will affect how it tastes. This is because different flavors in the coffee are extracted out of the grounds and into the water at different rates.
The first thing you extract are the fruity acids, then you get sweetness and balance, and finally bitterness. This is why coffee that has had long contact with boiling water tends to be more bitter.
But when you’re brewing cowboy coffee, the grounds have long contact with the water, especially compared to a coffee maker that percolates water through the grounds.
So how do avoid overly-bitter cowboy coffee?
The key is the combination of time and temperature…
According to the National Coffee Association, the ideal temperature for brewing coffee is 195-205°F. This is below (but not too far below) the boiling temperature of water, 212°F.
The reason this temperature is ideal is that the bitter flavor of the coffee is extracted from the grounds better at a higher temperature. So brewing coffee slightly below boiling temperature will leave some of the bitterness behind.
The main complaint with boiled cowboy coffee is that it is bitter and now you know why. But there is an upside to boiling the coffee…
To Boil or Not to Boil
As we’ve learned, adding coffee grounds while the water is still boiling will result in bitter coffee.
The upside to boiling the coffee grounds is that many of the acids will boil off, resulting in less acidic coffee.
Many of the acids that are extracted very quickly in coffee are more volatile than other components of the coffee. So, you can boil away some of the acids from the coffee in just a few minutes but this will result in more bitter coffee.
If you have a problem with the acidity in coffee but don’t mind the bitterness, you might try boiling your coffee grounds for about 2 minutes. You can then follow my tips for settling out the grounds (see below).
Personally, I prefer cowboy coffee that hasn’t been boiled (most people prefer the coffee not boiled) but I recognize this upside to boiling, especially if you’re sensitive to acidic foods.
Grind size will not effect the taste of cowboy coffee as much as it will in a coffee maker. But larger pieces will settle out easier so it’s recommended to use a coarse grind.
When using a coffee maker, the water has much less contact time with the coffee grounds.
The water won’t have time to penetrate into a the larger pieces of coffee and extract the all the flavors from the center of coarse ground coffee. This can result in more of an acidic and sour brew.
In cowboy coffee, the water has plenty of contact time with the grounds so all the flavors will be extracted from a course grind and the larger particles will settle out better than fine ones.
That’s why you should use course ground coffee to make cowboy coffee.
How Much Coffee to Use
How much coffee you choose to use is a matter of preferred strength but the key is to always measure.
When figuring out your perfect recipe for how to make cowboy coffee, start with roughly two tablespoons for every 8 ounces of coffee. I use the same spoon every time so I know that two of these sized spoonfuls is the right strength for me:
You don’t have to bring measuring cups with you camping. Simply use the same spoon, scoop, or whatever each time. That way, you can adjust to your preference based on the same measurement.
If you eyeball it every time or use a different sized spoon or scoop, chances are you’ll never get it right and you’ll be so inconsistent, you’ll end up hating cowboy coffee.
The Secret to Removing the Grounds
Many people think drinking cowboy coffee means having coffee grounds in your cup. This is absolutely false if you know how to remove them.
The secret is to add a little bit of cold water to the coffee after it is done brewing.
Here are a few tips to help with the process:
- Try to use a tall kettle rather a normal pot. This gives more separation between the coffee you will pour off the top and the grounds at the bottom.
- Tilt the kettle towards the spout by placing a stick or rock under the opposite side. Grounds that settle under the spout will be less disturbed when pouring.
- Add about 1 cup of cold water for a full pot of coffee or just a splash when only brewing a cup or two. You don’t want to dilute or cool down your coffee too much. Allow it to settle 1-2 minutes after adding the cold water.
How to Make Cowboy Coffee
- Boil your desired amount of water. Use about 8 fl. ounces for every cup of coffee you wish to brew (camping water bottles usually have volume markers).
- Once boiling, remove the water from the heat and let it cool down for 1-2 minutes. Wait exactly one minute if you have a small amount of water (3 cups or less) or it’s cold out (less than 50°F). Wait 2 minutes if you have a larger amount of water or if it’s warm out.
- Stir in about 2 tablespoons coarse ground coffee for every 8 fl. ounces of water. Two tablespoons is a normal coffee scoop or the size of a ping-pong ball.
- Let the coffee brew for 4 minutes, stirring once halfway through. After stirring, place a stick or rock under one end of the kettle so that it is tilted towards the spout.
- After the brewing time is done, add some cold water to settle the grounds – about 1 cup for a full kettle or just a splash when brewing a couple cups. Don’t overdo it, it doesn’t take much.
- Let it settle for about 1-2 minutes and slowly pour the coffee, being careful not to shake up the grounds. If done right, you shouldn’t get any grounds in your cup!
Cowboy coffee doesn’t have to be bitter and full of grounds.
There are two secrets to how to make cowboy coffee: add the grounds after the water has cooled a little and add cold water to settle the grounds after brewing.
Cowboy coffee can be a great solution to having coffee while camping and not having to bring any extra brewing equipment or resorting to instant coffee.
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