What to Do If You've Run Out of Coffee Filters

February 12, 2016

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.)

Happier times. Photo by James Ransom

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

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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

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

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

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

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

Coffee grounds a-steeping, sieve at the ready.

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.

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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


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 it...now 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.
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.
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.
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Caroline L. February 12, 2016
i love the idea of using a coffee filter to filter cooking oil!