How to Use an Electric Coffee Percolator

By Fred Decker

Not many people will admit to it, but it can be fun to get your friends riled up about something and just sit back and watch the fireworks. If your friends are serious foodies, one relatively harmless way to start a social media flame war is by asking them about the best way to make coffee. Coffee drinkers tend to be pretty passionate about what they like, even – or especially – when it's different from everyone else's. Even percolator coffee, the kind your grandparents grew up with, has its fans. This is strong, in-your-face coffee, the kind that smacks you upside the head and opens your eyelids through sheer force. The easiest way to do it is in an electric percolator.

Two cups of coffee with foam latte art on a wooden table seen from above
credit: Alexander Spatari/Moment/GettyImages

Understand the Basics

A coffee percolator is basically the old-school version of a drip coffee maker. The difference is that instead of dripping hot water over the grounds from above, a percolator forces hot water up a hollow stem from below. The percolator's filter basket has a perforated lid that spreads the water so it dribbles down evenly across the grounds, through the bottom of the basket and back down into the pot. The hot water – now a pale and weak coffee – gets pushed back up through the tube, across the grounds again, and back down. The process keeps going until the coffee is brewed to full strength.

Grind Coarsely

Getting a good cup of coffee is all about extracting the flavorful solids from your grounds. With a drip coffee maker, that happens quickly, so the coffee has to be ground fine enough that the water can dissolve the flavors during a one-way trip that lasts a few seconds. With a percolator, the water will make many, many trips through the grounds, so you want a coarsely ground coffee. Your water will pass across the grounds frequently enough to get to all the good stuff, without bringing too much bitterness and acidity. You can stack the deck a bit by starting with a coffee that has relatively low acidity.

Using Your Percolator

Using an electric percolator is as simple as setting up any other automatic machine. First, measure out your water into the percolator's base. Next, put the percolator's basket onto the stem and measure in your coffee. A tablespoon per cup is a good starting point, but you can use more or less depending on how strong you like your coffee. Put the perforated lid on the basket, and lift the whole assembly into your percolator. Put the lid on the pot, plug it in and turn it on. Now, go ahead with the rest of your morning for a few minutes, and the pot will do the rest. It will automatically switch to keep-warm mode when the coffee is ready.

Choosing Electric Over Manual

Old-fashioned manual percolators are pretty versatile, because you can use them over any heat source from your kitchen range to a campfire. The problem is that your water needs to boil for the percolator to work, but boiling water is just a bit too hot for the best coffee. The best-case scenario is to keep it at the very edge of a low boil, so the coffee percs but doesn't get bitter from over-extracting the grounds, or get an unpleasant "cooked" flavor from boiling too hard. That takes some serious skill in a manual pot, but an electric pot makes it effortless.