cup of coffee sitting in front of a campfire in the woods

Cowboy Coffee: How to Make Coffee Without a Machine

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The coffee world is full of high-tech, precision instruments and complicated brewing technique, all in the search of the elusive, ideal cup of coffee: smooth, balanced, not bitter, and absolutely drinkable all on it’s own.

In pursuit of this coffee unicorn, many of us have progressively upgraded our home brew setup to the point that our relatives are starting to question our obsession. 

If you’ve been dedicating a large chunk of your savings to coffee gear, you might be shocked to hear about the method that adherents claim produces that perfect cup of coffee: cowboy coffee.

Deceptively simple, cowboy coffee boasts many of those qualities coffee lovers prize: smoothness, low acidity, and a good flavor balance.

What is Cowboy Coffee?

So what is cowboy coffee, anyhow? The name might be a bit off-putting for some, but this is a lot better than you might expect. Cowboy coffee is basically the process of making coffee by boiling the grounds and the water in the pot. If you’ve ever seen the complex brewing setups at your favorite coffee shop, you might be raising some eyebrows at this point.

It gets its name because of its popularity with campers and anyone else who likes to cook over an open fire. You don’t need to make it out on the range though – you can just as easily make cowboy coffee on your own range – see what we did there?? 

Cowboy coffee has the added benefit of being a little less acidic, which makes it great for people who love coffee but struggle with indigestion or heartburn. 

While the process is relatively simple, you absolutely need the right cowboy coffee recipe or it will not even remotely resemble coffee. We’ll help you figure out how to make cowboy coffee so you can achieve that perfect, low-tech cup with ease every time.

How to Make Cowboy Coffee

Cowboy coffee isn’t hard to do, it just takes a little know-how. The basic concept is to boil ground coffee and water together, then let the coffee grounds settle. After a specific length of steeping time, you can carefully pour out a grounds-free cup of coffee.

Ingredients

First off, you can use your choice of coffee grounds. Cowboy coffee was traditionally made using pre ground coffee packets that cowboys could easily carry with them. Today, any medium or dark roast coffee will do the job just fine. You can grind it fresh (we recommend a medium grind size here) or buy pre-ground coffee, if that’s your thing.

Cowboy Coffee Equipment

So this one is a bit funny, because the whole cultural appeal of cowboy coffee is its simplicity and roughing-it appeal. Fancy equipment is sort of the antithesis of that. 

If you’re wondering how to make coffee without a coffee pot or kettle, you certainly can do it in a plain ol’ pot. A cowboy coffee kettle does make it considerably easier, though, especially since the spout makes it easier to pour the finished product. 

And sure, if you just happen to have a vintage coffee kettle kicking around your cabinets, that’s awesome. Sometimes you can even find a good one online or even at an antique store. The rise of thrifters running niche stores online makes this even easier than it was a few years ago. 

If you want something that fits in with your kitchen aesthetic, you might like the streamlined look of the Fellow Kettle. It’s modern, charcoal gray design has some nifty high-tech features, like a brew range thermometer, to make sure you keep your coffee at the ideal temperature. 

If you are thinking more about outfitting your gear for a camping trip, then this enamelware coffee boiler does the trick while bringing some classic campfire vibes.

Steps to Make Cowboy Coffee

Cowboy coffee is a little bit like making salsa: each cook has his or her own recipe that’s just a little different. 

We’ve hit upon a pretty reliable cowboy coffee recipe that should yield good results reliably.

  1. Grind your coffee or measure pre-ground coffee
  2. Fill a cowboy coffee pot with water (these typically hold about two gallons worth of water, so you’re making quite a bit here) 
  3. Place the filled pot or kettle over an open fire or a camp stove
  4. Bring to a rolling boil (the water should keep boiling even when you stir it with a spoon
  5. Stir in your ground coffee (between 1 cup and 1 ½ cup of coffee per 4 cups water) 
  6. Stir a few times and remove the coffee from the heat source
  7. Slowly pour in an additional 1 cup of cold water
  8. Let the coffee sit undisturbed for about 5 minutes to allow the grounds to settle to the bottom

The cold water step is the one that throws a lot of people off, but it’s absolutely necessary. This helps push the grounds to the bottom of the pot so you don’t end up with a mouthful of grit.

It also slows the extraction process by quickly lowering the temperature of the coffee. What this means is you will result in a less bitter cup of coffee. 

Finally, the cold water lowers the acidity of the coffee, making it easier on the digestive system.

Alternate Methods to Make Cowboy Coffee

While the cowboy coffee pot method is as simple as they come, a few of our favorite cowboys swear by some extra tips and tricks when they explain how to make cowboy coffee the absolute best it can be. 

The Egg Shell Method

We know, it seemed strange to us the first time we heard it, but adding eggshells to your coffee does have some basis in chemistry. The albumin in the eggs is sticky, which helps to bind the coffee grounds together and settle down to the bottom of your kettle.

Ingredients

  • Ground Coffee
  • Egg shells (fresh – don’t save them for days as bacteria could grow)
  • Water

Equipment

  • Coffee Kettle or Pot
  • Heat source, like a camp stove or a campfire

Steps

  1. Mix a few tablespoons of crushed eggshells in with your coffee grounds
  2. Fill your coffee kettle up and place over the heat source
  3. Bring to a full, rolling boil
  4. Add your coffee grounds and shells mixture, but don’t stir
  5. Wait for the kettle to return to a boil, then immediately remove it from the heat
  6. Allow to steep for about 5 minutes, without stirring it, to make sure the grounds sink
  7. Pour and enjoy!

In the interest of using what you bring and letting nothing go to waste, the eggshell method can be a great, compostable way to make your cowboy coffee even better. 

The Sock Method

You might have heard that in a pinch, you can use a clean sock or dish towel if you run out of coffee filters when brewing coffee at home. Imagining the rough-it lifestyle of cowboys out and away from civilization, we can easily picture these tough folks brewing coffee with whatever they had handy….we just hope it was, um, clean. 

The sock method is basically an improvised coffee bag or reusable coffee filter that you will use to prevent grounds from getting into your final brew. While it doesn’t give you quite the same experience as classic cowboy coffee, it’s a good adaptation for those who just really hate finding any grounds in their mug.

Ingredients

  • Ground Coffee
  • Water

Equipment

  • Coffee pot or kettle
  • A clean sock or other lightweight fabric bag (ideally undyed muslin or cotton) 
  • A camp stove or campfire, or other heat source

Steps

  1. Grind your coffee
  2. Measure your coffee into your clean sock (or bag) and tie it at the top
  3. Fill your kettle or pot with water and bring to a rolling boil
  4. Add the coffee-grounds-in-a-bag to the pot 
  5. Once it is boiling again, remove from the heat 
  6. Let it steep for about 5 minutes
  7. Remove the sock or bag and pour your coffee

If you’re packing for a camping trip, adding a coffee bag really doesn’t take up any extra space or add any weight. Though it does depart a bit from the simple aesthetic of traditional cowboy coffee, there’s nothing wrong with having a little help to keep the grounds out of your mug while you’re enjoying the sunrise over your campsite.  

Final Note

Of course, if you do enjoy camping, this is an absolutely necessary recipe to have in your tool belt. Roughing it doesn’t mean we have to go without the ultimate necessity: coffee.

You don’t have to survive on instant coffee granules to spend some quality time in nature. All you need is a campfire, some ground coffee, a pot, and the knowledge of how to make cowboy coffee, and you’re in business.

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