How to make cowboy coffee is not a question you typically hear in specialty coffee circles. It doesn’t use elegant or sophisticated equipment. There aren’t any trendy campfire coffee brewing competitions with clever posters (maybe we should start one). It might not be glamorous but making coffee over an open fire is a camping staple. Coffee outside hits your senses in a unique way. On a brisk morning, a cup of boiled coffee by an open fire can be some of the best coffee you have ever tasted.
Let’s be honest, you are not prepared for camping without a solid cowboy coffee recipe— I’m here to help. In this post I’ll talk about how this brewing method works, share my recipe and talk about cowboy coffee kettles. Let’s get started.
I would like to give some credit for this post to Steve who left a comment on my French Press post recommending this method. Thanks Steve! If you have blog ideas, I want to hear from you. I even made a special page so it would be easier to send me a message. Contact me.
What is Cowboy Coffee?
Like French press coffee, cowboy coffee is an immersion brewing technique. If you need a refresher: immersion brewing is a method where coffee grounds are soaked in water for a predetermined amount of time. The coffee is then separated from the grounds and consumed. Immersion brewing techniques typically use larger grind particle size and a few minutes of steep time.
Cowboy Coffee vs. French Press- Water temperature, steep time and coffee ground removal are the main differences between cowboy coffee and French press coffee. French press recipes use a preheated water (below boiling point), a shorter steep time and immediate filtering of the grounds (my recipe here). Making coffee over an open fire is less controlled—you are boiling coffee grounds and leaving them at the bottom of the brew.
The basic premise of a cowboy coffee recipe is simple:
- Ground coffee is added to a pot or kettle of water.
- The water is brought to a boil.
- The concoction is cooled slightly allowing the grounds to sink.
- Your boiled coffee is carefully decanted into your favorite cowboy coffee mug to enjoy (coffee outside with no filters, gooseneck kettles or timers needed).
As with all manual brewing techniques, the devil is in the details. Let’s see how to make the best coffee over a campfire.
Campfire Coffee Supplies
If you have a pot to boil water or a camping percolator, you pretty much have everything you need to make cowboy coffee. Here is a quick rundown:
Typically, my cowboy coffee ratio is 1:17 coffee to water by weight. You may want to back this dosage off a bit since the steep time will be a bit longer. If you are eyeballing it (most people don’t bring a gram scale camping) try using one heaping tablespoon of ground coffee per mug. You can read more about coffee dosage here.
If you have the choice, it is best to select a coarse grind. There is also the option of grinding the coffee on site with a hand grinder. The Hario Slim Mill has been on many camping adventures with me, including bicycle touring trips. This is extra but grinding your own coffee warms you twice…
If you are making cowboy coffee, you will most likely be using a campfire. This is not a hard and fast rule. Your heat source can range from hot coals, a backpacking stove or even the range in your kitchen. Whatever you are using to heat your water, make sure it can bring your coffee to a boil in a timely manner (around ten minutes is a good goal).
Don’t forget your cowboy coffee mug- There are a lot of choices here. Enamelware is the most popular option. I prefer a ceramic mug if it is available. There is also a great Miir enamelware lookalike from Ruby that I’m smitten with.
A Pot or Kettle for Boiling Coffee
The requirements for this are pretty simple but we will go more in depth in the next section. Your campfire kettle should hold enough water for the amount of coffee you would like to make and be suitable for use over an open fire. It is also helpful to bring a pot holder or have a plan for removing the kettle from the heat source.
What is the best cowboy coffee kettle?
There are a few things to consider before buying a cowboy coffee maker.
First, you probably have something that will work just fine in your cupboard or camp gear. An old pot or aluminum camping percolator (sans the filter basket) will work great. Make sure it is something you are okay with tarnishing as it will probably get covered in soot.
You should also consider how you are going to set the coffee kettle on the heat source. Will there be a grate over the fire or will you need to rig some way of hanging it? It may also work to set the kettle on some hot coals. Don’t get too hung up on this, just realize you may have to do a little problem solving when you get to your campsite
Because of it’s simplicity, there really is no “best pot for cowboy coffee.” You can use something you already have or choose a traditional enamelware coffee pot. For ultimate style points check out the castor cowboy coffee kettle—I probably wouldn’t put this beauty over an open fire but for a camp stove of kitchen setup, it is pretty slick.
My Cowboy Coffee Recipe
Making cowboy coffee is simple but there are still many different takes on the brewing process.
Legendary chuck wagon owner and humorist Kent Rollins recommends putting the grounds in already warm water and boiling for four minutes. I like putting the grounds in the water while it is still cold. This gives the water some extra time to extract those fats and oils. I also like to remove the heat from my coffee as soon as it gets to a rolling boil.
The type of coffee you use, the coarseness of the grind and personal preferences will play a huge role in how you make your campfire coffee. Don’t even get me started on the way water with effect the final product. Don’t stress about it. The coffee will be good because it is more than just coffee. It is all part of the coffee outside experience.
Here is my recipe:
Start with cold water. My cowboy coffee ratio is approximately 1 gram of coffee for every 17 grams of water. You can keep it simple by just adding a heaping tablespoon of ground coffee for each cup you are brewing.
Add your ground coffee to the kettle of cold water and give it a good stir.
Place the kettle on your heat source and bring the mixture to a boil.
How long to boil coffee? Don’t let it boil too long. As soon as you see that your coffee is boiling, take it from the heat source. It typically takes my water around ten minutes to reach a boil.
Once your coffee is off the heat, pour a little cold water on the grounds (20-30 mL). This will help the grounds settle to the bottom. As it cools, most of grounds should sink. I’ll take around five minutes for your coffee to clear. You can give the top level a light stir after a few minutes to help the process along.
Once the grounds sink to the bottom, it is coffee time. Decant into mug immediately and enjoy. To keep from stirring up the grounds at the bottom you can also ladle the coffee into your mugs.
Things for further consideration
There are various factors involved that will greatly influence the cup quality of your cowboy coffee. I realize that when you are out camping, you may not be too interested in some of these possibly minute details but I feel that I would be remiss if I neglected to point them out.
True cowboy coffee should be made over a fire and fires are inconsistent heat sources.
Depending on how hot of a fire you have, it will take the water more time to heat up to a boil. This will have an effect on your brewing consistency. The amount of water you are boiling also has an effect on the amount of time to boil. Each time you brew a pot of cowboy coffee, the brew time will be different. A free spirit coffee brewer might like this method for it’s randomness. An analytical coffee brewer could go crazy over repeatability issues.
Grind particle size consistency is still important.
As with the French press brewing method, the consistency of the grind size will make a difference in your final cup quality and flavors. Standard pre-ground coffee from the store will probably be ground a little fine to fully take advantage of this method. I’m not saying you can’t do it. I’m just looking at the “perfect” cup of cowboy coffee scenario.
Boiling your coffee can be a bit worrisome.
Let’s admit it. The “coffee brewing rules” are there for a reason. There are people, smart people, that are brewing coffee all day and testing things. The pretty much uniformly accepted range of optimal brewing water temperature is 200-205 degrees. You may want to consider pulling the coffee off of the heat source when it is at about 205 degrees Fahrenheit. (You do bring a thermometer with you camping right?). I let mine go all the way to boil and think it turns out pretty good.
Embrace the campfire coffee experience
Camping, fires and coffee just fit together. Nothing scratches my itch for wanderlust quite the same as cowboy coffee. The very name of it conjures up images of a warm and smokey fire on a foggy morning… a blackened kettle of coffee warming on the fire.
There are other ways of brewing coffee outside when camping. I’ve used the Aeropress and various pour-over drippers pretty consistently while on bicycle tours. Some people might choose to discard this method and let it fade into an era of the past. This would do a disservice to cowboy coffee. I’m always surprised with how much I enjoy the entire cowboy coffee experience.
If you have a pot of water, some ground coffee and a heat source, you are only a few minutes away from enjoying a manual brew. You don’t need filters, press pots or even electricity. Give it a try and let me know what tips and tricks you would share. Thanks!
(Post Updated October 4, 2020- Originally Posted March 30, 2015)