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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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