How to Make Cowboy Coffee Over a Campfire

Coffee On Coals And The Seashore

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In an era of high-tech percolators, French presses, and now even portable espresso machines, the humble method of brewing coffee over a campfire may seem antiquated. Yet, cowboy coffee remains a staple of camping culture more than a century after early Wild West explorers deemed it a ritual.

Made by boiling water over a fire, then adding coffee grounds and letting them settle at the bottom, this is certainly one of the most rustic and social methods of coffee making. However, it's also known to be one of the most fallible. If the water temperature is off or the brew is not stirred properly, your cowboy coffee could wind up burnt, bitter, and sludgy.

Whole Bean or Ground Coffee?

There are benefits to both whole bean and ground coffee, and which is best for you will depend largely on your packing capacity and dedication to a good cup of coffee. Ground coffee stales quickly, which is why many connoisseurs prefer to purchase whole beans and grind them just before they're brewed.

That said, grinding coffee in the wilderness will require packing a grinder, of course, and such a tool may be less practical for backpacking. If you choose to buy ground coffee, remember that finer grinds tend to be stronger in flavor, and that coarser grounds — because they're heavier — sink more easily to the bottom.

There are three practically fail-proof ways to make smooth cowboy coffee that's also grit-free: with eggshells, with a homemade brew bag, or the old-fashioned stirring method. Some even swear by adding a pinch of salt to replenish what they may have sweat out from hiking — a trick the cowboys once used themselves. Other lightweight, nonperishable additions include sugar, powdered creamer, milk powder, vanilla powder, ground cinnamon, and hot chocolate mix.

Here's how to make this campfire specialty, three ways. All recipes yield four cups of cowboy coffee.

The Stirring Method

The most basic method of making cowboy coffee — and the method likely used by its earliest consumers — is the stirring method, requiring only a pot, fire, water, a spoon, and coffee. The beauty of this traditional technique is its simplicity. It involves steeping coffee grounds directly in water for about five minutes, stirring periodically to agitate the grounds, coaxing out the coffee flavor, then letting them sink to the bottom. 

Backpackers need not carry any extra utensils for this pared-down method, but the downside is that it can easily turn out sludgy with the absence of a filter. If you find that there are still grounds floating when it's ready to drink, a sprinkling of cold water should help them sink to the bottom.

What You'll Need

  • Eight tablespoons of coffee grounds
  • One quart of water
  • A pot or kettle made of cast iron, stainless steel, or another heat-resistant material
  • A spoon, for stirring
  • A campfire that's been burning steadily for 30 minutes to an hour, so that the flames are settled

Steps

  1. Position a pot or kettle of water over the fire on a grate or tripod, so that the flames are licking the bottom. A wood fire needs to be at least 356 degrees Fahrenheit to ignite, so it should take only five to 10 minutes to bring the water to a rolling boil (212 F).
  2. Once the water is boiling, take it off the heat and let it sit for 30 seconds to one minute. The National Coffee Association says 200 degrees Fahrenheit is the optimal temperature for coffee brewing. Any hotter and the coffee could burn.
  3. Once the water has cooled slightly, add your desired amount of coffee — two tablespoons per eight ounces of water is standard — and stir.
  4. Let sit for two minutes.
  5. Stir again to agitate the coffee grounds.
  6. Let sit for another two minutes, allowing the grounds to settle at the bottom before pouring. 
  7. Pour gently, so that the grounds stay at the bottom, and serve with the add-ins of your choice.

The Eggshell Method

Fried eggs cooking on camp fire
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One of the most common complaints about cowboy coffee is that it can be especially bitter. Adding coffee to water that's too hot or leaving the coffee to steep for too long can result in an unpalatable flavor. Mixing your grounds with crushed eggshells — because they're alkaline and coffee is acidic — helps to neutralize and temper the sharp flavors. Eggshells also help keep the grounds at the bottom of the pot, therefore reducing the sludgy consistency. 

The drawback? Eggshells, or whole eggs, aren't entirely pack-friendly for those who plan to make their cowboy coffee in the backcountry. If you happen to prepare a breakfast scramble, though, this is a good way to repurpose the shells. Remember that eggs aren’t usually cleaned before they’re sold, so you’ll first want to wash both the dirt from the outside and raw egg from the inside of the shells to prevent foodborne illness.

What You'll Need

  • Eight tablespoons of coffee grounds
  • One quart of water, plus a little extra for washing the eggshells
  • Five empty eggshells (or however many you have available)
  • A heat-resistant pot or kettle
  • A campfire that's been burning steadily for 30 minutes to an hour

Steps

  1. Position your pot or kettle of water over the fire and bring to a rolling boil.
  2. Pour some of the boiling water over your eggshells, if you haven’t cleaned them already. It’s best to create a hot water-vinegar solution for extra sanitation, but the heat of the water will kill bacteria regardless.
  3. Set the rest of the water aside to cool. 
  4. While the water is cooling, crush your eggshells and mix them into the coffee grounds. 
  5. After 30 seconds to one minute, add the coffee and eggshell mixture to the water. Do not stir.
  6. Allow the coffee to steep and sink to the bottom for five minutes. The eggshells should help pull the grounds down and keep them there instead of ending up in your cup, but if the mixture still looks gritty, add a touch of cold water.
  7. Pour gently, so that the grounds stay at the bottom, and serve with the add-ins of your choice.

The DIY Brew Bag Method

A man makes morning coffee at a campsite in the Snowy Range, Wyoming.
Steve Glass / Getty Images

To eliminate the possibility of grounds in your cup altogether, you can always bend the unwritten rules of cowboy coffee and bag your ground beans in a muslin bag, coffee filter, or even a clean sock before submerging them in hot water. This method, not much different than steeping a tea bag, might be slightly unorthodox and less convenient, considering you'll not only need to pack a reusable brew bag, but you'll also have to pack your soiled brew bag back out. Nevertheless, this is your best bet for a cup of cowboy coffee that isn't full of grounds.

 What You'll Need

  • Eight tablespoons of coffee grounds
  • A clean sock, reusable cotton coffee sock, or muslin bag
  • One quart of water
  • A heat-resistant pot or kettle
  • A campfire that's been burning steadily for 30 minutes to an hour

 Steps

  1. Bring your water to a boil over the fire.
  2. While you wait for the water to heat up, fill a coffee filter, a clean sock, or muslin bag with the desired amount of coffee grounds and tie it up tightly so that no grounds can escape.
  3. After the water has boiled, remove the pot or kettle from the fire and allow water to cool down for up to a minute.
  4. Steep your DIY coffee bag in the hot water as you would with a tea bag for about five minutes.
  5. Serve with the add-ins of your choice.