The Best Coffee Filter Substitutes for When You’ve Run Out

You've probably got a few options lying around the house.

August 26, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Running out of coffee filters isn't really a big deal, especially here in New York, where there's a grocery store or bodega on every other block (most will have filters on any given day).

But there are some times—like Saturday mornings or early work days, for example—when leaving the apartment before gulping down something caffeinated simply doesn't seem like an option. (And this is only more true if you don't live in an area with a filter-carrying store within a few minutes' walk.)

Here is the good news: You can make coffee—even pretty good coffee—without a filter.

When running out of paper filters feels like a big deal, what should you do? First, stay calm.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“O wow just noticed how old this thread is! But, for sure, many coffee makers including my current Ninja drip come with a permanent filter. It's not perfect as far as letting a little mud and grit through but will do for early morning hours. ”
— Brenda

Second, take stock of what you do have. (If you are also out of beans, throw up your hands and head to the nearest coffee shop.)

Third, look for a reasonable alternative. If you have a fine mesh sieve, you're in luck! Jump to the bottom of this post for what to do. But for everyone else, here are the other best coffee filter alternatives, a few of which we discovered thanks to the methods you recommended on this very helpful Hotline thread.

Happier times. Photo by James Ransom

Best Coffee Filter Substitutes

1. A Paper Towel

How to do it: Line a pour over or drip basket with a paper towel. Place 2 tablespoons of coffee inside, and gradually pour about a cup of not-quite-boiling water over the grounds. When the water has drained through, remove the pour over from the mug and discard grounds and paper towel.

Pros: You almost certainly have paper towels at home. You don’t have to change your method at all, besides subbing the towel for a filter. And as a bonus, a paper towel's fine weave contains even very fine coffee grounds—so no bottom-of-the-mug mud.

1 large paper towel, folded in half lengthwise, and fit into my trusty Melitta.

Cons: There are very possibly traces of glue, bleach, or whatever other chemicals used to process the paper towels. They're also very thin, so breakage is possible (and we all know how messy that would be). And, because of this flimsiness, a pour over or automatic drip basket (i.e. equipment) is critical. Even without all of those drawbacks, the end result was acidic and sort of papery and chemical-tasting.

Would we recommend it?: It's not necessarily our favorite coffee filter substitute, but if you really have to, it's certainly not the worst either.

2. A clean dish towel or cloth napkin

How to do it: Select a clean (!) dish towel or cloth napkin. Think about how you would feel if the coffee stained that particular cloth and choose accordingly. Set the cloth into a pour over or automatic drip basket (or use a rubber band to secure it to the mouth of your mug, letting it droop slightly into the cup), put 2 tablespoons of ground coffee inside, and gradually pour about a cup of not-quite-boiling water over the grounds. When the water has passed through, very carefully remove the grounds-filled cloth and rinse out.

Pros: You definitely have a clean towel somewhere in your home—and it's also very sustainable. You can use it without a pour over or drip basket (just secure it to the mug with a rubber band, as shown above). Like the paper towel, it contains even very fine coffee grounds (i.e. no mud).

Left, cloth napkin rubber-banded to the top of a mug. Right, soggy, delinquent napkin leaking coffee all over the coffee table.

Cons: The “bowl” of the filter (when you're using a rubber band rather than a piece of equipment) is very shallow—and yet still dangles in the coffee. Other concerns include possibly staining the cloth. But the big kickers here were that the coffee saturated the cloth napkin I was using and dripped over the side of the mug, leaving a puddle on all sides. Also, the resulting coffee tasted like laundry detergent (and I use unscented!).

Would we recommend it?: Straight-up no. I do hear rumors of successes with cloth coffee filters, though.

3. Reusable Tea Bags

How to do it: If you also happen to be a tea drinker, then you just might have a few reusable tea bags in the kitchen. Turns out, you can also use them to steep your coffee (coffee company Kahawa 1893 makes single-serve coffee bags designed this way). To DIY it at home, add add 1 to 2 tablespoons of finely ground coffee to a reusable tea bag, seal it up, add it to a mug with just-below-boiling water, and let it steep for a few minutes. Remove the "tea" bag and—voila!—your freshly brewed coffee awaits.

Pros: This method is pretty mess-free and also tends to result in very few coffee grounds ending up in your cup (a win!). Also, since you're already using a food-safe material, you shouldn't have to worry about any chemicals ending up in your coffee (like you might with paper towels).

Cons: There's a chance you may not have reusable tea bags (especially if you don't drink loose tea very often), which would make this method a no-go.

Would we recommend it? Yep, particularly for its ease and simplicity. While it may not result in a cup of Joe that's quite as flavorful as a French press or pour-over drip coffee, it can certainly satisfy a coffee fix in a pinch.

4. A Fine Mesh Sieve

How to do it: Put 2 tablespoons of coffee in the bottom of a glass measuring cup (or similar vessel). Pour about a cup of not-quite-boiling water over the grounds, stir once, and wait about 5 minutes (or less or more, depending on how strong you like your coffee). Pour the coffee through a fine mesh sieve set over a mug. If you want to make sure as few coffee grounds make it through as possible, you could lay a piece of cheesecloth over the sieve to catch them.

Pros: Another option that doesn't require throwing anything away! It's also very scalable—you could make a whole pot of coffee this way. You control over how strong the coffee is and can adjust how long the grounds steep based on your preferences. And—surprise!—it actually tastes pretty good! This is also arguably the easiest way to brew coffee.

Coffee grounds a-steeping, sieve at the ready.

Cons: The sieve doesn’t catch the finest coffee grounds—and you might not have a fine mesh sieve lying around.

Would we recommend it?: Yes! This produced a cup of coffee that was actually quite good (and strong). I wouldn't say it's a reason to forgo coffee filters altogether, but it's not a bad backup option, and certainly better than no coffee at all.

What coffee filter substitutes have you turned to in a pinch? Tell us (pretty please!) in the comments below.

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Nancy August 27, 2020
There's always cowboy coffee (and no filter needed).
Boil the needed amount of water in a saucepan.
Add requisite amount of grounds (medium is best but other grinds work too).
Steep to taste (about 5 min).
Pour into mugs, leaving the grinds in the saucepan.
witloof August 27, 2020
I use a nut milk bag to strain my cold brew and it works great, so that would be an obvious choice.
Lauren December 17, 2019
I ran out of filters a few years ago and used a paper tower. Maybe I'm not a "discernible" coffee drinker, but it works for me. I buy filters when I think of it and don't really worry about running out...but I do usually buy plain white paper towels. A sieve....I think the holes are still too big and I don't like chewing my coffee! OH...and I've been putting my coffee in the freezer for years...that works for me, too.
Karisa L. August 10, 2016
So I went to make coffee this morning and 'gasp' I'm out of coffee filters! And paper towels as well, I know I think I need to go get paper products later today. Anywho, I searched around the house and found some new window screen we are using to build a rabbit hut...I cut a small piece folded it over and maneuvered it to mold my coffee pot filter thingy majiggy, after of course I washed sitting here enjoying my strong coffee with no funny taste, or grounds...I am browsing around looking for other solutions. ..however I believe I may have found my reusable free coffee filter. ....imagination and intuition when desperate for the ever needed java Joe did it for me!
Anne March 16, 2016
What about reusing a paper filter? Especially with Chemex they are so thick, I Think it could work! I will try and report back.
Vg October 2, 2023
It works for about 2 or 3 times then starts falling apart. You rise it off refill and use like 2x max
Windischgirl February 23, 2016
Pull out the French Press!
We have also, when camping, made Cowboy Coffee: simply combine ground coffee and water in a pot, boiled to desired strength, then carefully decant it...the grounds do sink to the bottom and although the coffee is cloudy, it tastes so good on a chilly morning while huddled next to the campfire...
Patty February 16, 2016
Hey Samantha Ritchie - do they make them big enough to cover the hole on this unit in the pic (I call it a Chemex)?
Samantha R. February 15, 2016
Use a loose leaf tea strainer!
Patty February 15, 2016
I have used clean, older cloth handkerchiefs in a pinch. However, why not dispense of the paper waste altogether and purchase a permanent filter? Not expensive, ecological :)
Charlotte V. February 15, 2016
Hmm... I have a yogurt strainer that would probably be perfect for coffee.
702551 February 15, 2016
Knowing what sort of nasty garbage that goes into consumer-grade paper, I'd rather go to the store and buy coffee filters than use a paper towel.

Using a cloth towel is fine, as long as you don't use scented detergent or worse, fabric softener (banned in some countries as some of the components are carcinogenic).

Two options not mentioned: fine mesh strainer (like a chinois etamine) and cheese cloth. The former is basically the equipment used to make espressos or used in devices like French press coffee pots.

Since the author doesn't mention it, it's worth pointing out that in some places, making coffee with grounds floating around is rather typical. It can be done, you just need to be judicious about stopping the pour when it gets too gritty/dense for your tastes.
Rosita T. November 1, 2020
All of these ideas sound great. My maw maw lived deep in the country on a small farm and during my visits as a young girl she “Cooked” coffee for us and strained it with beautiful flour sacks she kept clean and neatly folded in her cupboard for just such occasions. Then she sweetened the coffee and added fresh milk to make coffee milk for us. Now I realize that was her version of the modern day Nitro Brew!!! That was the best coffee and it tasted even better with those great buttered biscuits she made!!!
Smaug February 12, 2016
Permanent coffee filters are available, made of very fine mesh with gold plating- it seems to be a bit problematic getting the size of mesh right; I had one that the water took forever to get through, even with coarse grind- my current one works very well. Haven't had much trouble with paper towels, but I do cut them to cone shape (easy after folding). They work better than coffee filters for filtering used cooking oil.
Caroline L. February 12, 2016
i love the idea of using a coffee filter to filter cooking oil!
Brenda July 26, 2020
O wow just noticed how old this thread is! But, for sure, many coffee makers including my current Ninja drip come with a permanent filter. It's not perfect as far as letting a little mud and grit through but will do for early morning hours.