There's a definite appeal to using a solid piece of vintage kitchen technology. That might be the thrift-store waffle iron you found that's just like your grandma's, a well-kept piece of cast iron or even a classic chromed-steel toaster that works beautifully now that you've replaced the cord. A stove top percolator captures that same retro vibe in a pretty spectacular way and, when used properly, makes surprisingly good coffee.
A percolator is a pretty simple piece of equipment, with just a few pieces. The main body of the pot is basically just a kettle, usually tall and narrow. The brewing apparatus consists of a funnel-shaped tube that stands inside the pot, a basket that fits over the tube – often with a lid of its own – and finally, the lid of the pot itself, which usually has a glass knob on it.
When the water in the pot is heated, it rises up through the funnel-shaped tube and bubbles over onto the top of the basket with a sort of a "bloop" sound. The water trickles down through the coffee grounds and out through the bottom of the basket, where it repeats the cycle. It may remind you of a grade school textbook explanation of how water evaporates, forms clouds and then falls back to the ground as rain.
Preparing the Percolator
Start with a clean percolator each time. If you let a buildup accumulate on the inside, it will give your brew a stale flavor over time. Fill it with as many cups of cold, clean water as you need to meet your coffee quota. If your tap water is hard, heavily chlorinated or has "off" flavors, it may be better to use bottled water for your coffee making.
Measure out a tablespoon of coffee grounds for each 8-ounce cup of water you've put into the pot. The markings on most percolators measure for 6-ounce diner-sized coffee cups, so either do the math or just use a measuring cup to keep track of how much water you've put in. Spoon the ground evenly around the basket, then assemble the basket, stand and basket lid, and put them into your percolator. Put the lid onto the percolator and take it to the stove.
Brewing Your Coffee
Put the pot on a burner and turn it to medium heat. Percolator coffee is a hands-on process, but you have a few minutes to do other things while it's coming up to temperature. When you hear the first "bloop" of water gushing up the stem and into the basket, come back to the stove and watch the bulb on top. You should get a bubble of water in the bulb about every two or three seconds.
If it's quicker than that, turn down the temperature under your percolator. If it's slower than that, turn the temperature up. Your water should never outright be boiling because that makes for a harsh, bitter cup of coffee.
Once you've hit the right temperature, let your coffee brew for 6 to 10 minutes, depending how strong you like it. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for a minute, then open the lid – carefully, there'll be a gush of steam – and remove the basket and its stand. Pour the coffee, and enjoy.
Percolator as Camping Coffee Pot
Once you've mastered your percolator, you'll find that it's a great camping coffee maker as well. Most models are pretty sturdy and durable, and they'll work exactly the same over a campfire as they do at home. The only difference is that you'll adjust the temperature by moving your pot closer to, or further away from, the fire.
Some Percolator Finesse
Percolator coffee has a bit of sediment in it, like coffee made in a French press, and a small amount is normal. If you have lots of sediment, your coffee's too small for the holes in the filter basket. Buy a coarser grind, or better yet grind your own. A quick look at the holes in your percolator's basket will tell you how coarse the grounds should be.
You can settle the sediment by adding a small amount of cold water to your pot after the basket and stem come out. The cold water sinks to the bottom, taking the sediment with it. You could also choose to decant the finished coffee into a second, preheated pot for serving.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.