Here is the good news: You can make coffee—even pretty good coffee—without a filter. All you need is a fine mesh sieve, which, if you cook a lot, you probably have stashed in a drawer. I did not know this the Saturday morning I woke up and realized I was out of coffee filters (and subsequently realized, as I began to sweat, that I was addicted to coffee).
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 and most will have filters on any given day. But there are some times—Saturday mornings, 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 New York or another place with a filter-carrying store within a few minutes' walk.)
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 filter alternative. If you have a fine mesh sieve, you're in luck! Jump to the bottom of this post. But for everyone else (and for journalism), I tried two additional possible substitutes based on what you recommended on the Hotline. Here's what worked—and what didn't.
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 I recommend?: Not my favorite, but if you really have to, not the worst.
A clean dishtowel or cloth napkin
How to do it: Select a clean (!!) dishtowel 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 I recommend?: Straight-up no. I do hear rumors of successes with cloth coffee filters, though.
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.
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 I 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 methods have you turned to in tough times? Tell us (please!) in the comments.