"Richard got married to a figure skater / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator..." sings Joni Mitchell on her 1971 song "The Last Time I Saw Richard." Yes, in 1971 an electric coffee percolator was a must-have kitchen appliance for any self-respecting housewife, and was the most popular type of in-home coffee maker before drip machines came along. Today, you can add convenient single-serve contraptions and trendy, low-tech pour-over gadgets to your options, yet percolators are still sold (new and used), and they have their fans. While some older folks might be nostalgic for the taste of coffee served by 1970s housewives, other converts to "perked" coffee enjoy its characteristic rich, robust flavor and the fact that it comes out very dark and piping hot. If you've got your hands on an electric percolator and don't have the manual, know that they're very straightforward to use.
What Is a Percolator and How Does It Work?
Coffee percolators, which come in stovetop and electronic versions, are fairly simple, technologically speaking. Usually stainless steel, they comprise a single, tall pot with a spout, two internal chambers stacked vertically and a central narrow tube. Take your machine apart – which necessary for its use – and you'll find the lower chamber for holding water, an upper chamber for holding coffee grounds, a perforated top for the coffee chamber, and a hollow tube that connects the two chambers.
When you turn on an electric coffee percolator (or put a manual one on a heat source), the water is heated to the boiling point. Pressure forces the boiling water from the bottom chamber up the hollow tube and through the perforated top of the coffee chamber. The hot water rains down on the coffee grounds, where it's pushed downward to drip back into the water chamber. This process is repeated, circulating brewed coffee that gets stronger with every cycle. With a manual percolator, you need to turn off the heat when the coffee's as strong as you desire; with an electric version there's no need for such attention, as the machine switches off automatically when the coffee's ready. You'll also hear a gurgling sound while the coffee percolates, which stops when it's done. The whole process takes a few minutes. Most modern models switch to a keep-warm function. Some also feature adjustable brewing times.
How to Use an Electric Coffee Percolator
Proper use of a coffee percolator starts with the coffee itself. Percolators require a coarser grind than drip machines; otherwise, the coffee will include sediment. Grind beans yourself or use a grinder at the market, or try to find coarsely ground coffee that's intended for a French press.
Remove the lid, tube and upper chamber from the machine. Pour 6 ounces of fresh, cold water per cup into the lower chamber, and make sure the water level isn't above the line indicating the maximum fill. The water level must be below the bottom of the upper chamber. Now add 1 to 2 tablespoons of coffee per cup to the upper chamber (coffee basket). You can add a coffee filter, either one designed for a percolator or a regular round filter with a hole punched through the center for the tube, if you wish, but it's not essential. Using a filter prevents grounds from getting into the coffee, but if the grind is coarse enough, that shouldn't be an issue.
Replace the tube and upper chamber (coffee basket). The tube will go through the hole in the middle of the upper chamber. Place the perforated top on the upper chamber, replace the percolator's lid, plug it in and turn it on. Select a brewing time, if your machine has that option. Now simply sit back and wait for the percolator to do its thing. It will switch off as soon as your coffee is ready, and you can pour yourself a cup directly from the pot.
Tips for a Great Cup of Coffee
Using a coffee percolator has a short learning curve, and you should have the hang of it after making a few pots. Experiment with the amounts of coffee – use more per cup for a stronger brew – as well as the grind. If you find sediment in the bottom of the pot or your cup, the grind is too fine.
Before brewing, make sure the coffee grounds are arranged evenly in the chamber, and that none are inside the hole in the middle of the chamber, as this can cause a blockage. Tap the basket firmly on your counter before putting it in the machine to even out the grounds.
Clean the removable parts of the percolator with hot, soapy water after every use. Unplug the machine and rinse it out as well, wiping it with a soapy sponge if necessary. Use a pipe cleaner to clean the inside of the tube. If you skip this step, a buildup of old coffee can make your next pot taste unpleasant.
Joanne Thomas has worked as a writer and editor for print and online publications since 2004. As a specialist in all things food and drink, she has penned pieces for Livestrong, Robert Mondavi and Modern Mom, among other names. She found her first jobs in a series of kitchens before moving on to celebrate food via the written word. Thomas resides in California and holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.