Grinding Coffee at Home: answers to frequently asked questions

Laura Last Updated: January 5th, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Manual coffee grinder with whole beans and cup
If you love a great cup of coffee to start your day, you’ll appreciate the added flavor of freshly-ground coffee. Once you have tried the fresh stuff, you will not go back to your regular morning cup stale ground coffee. Below you’ll find answers to the most commonly asked questions about grinding coffee at home.

Why should I use fresh-ground coffee?

With so many different ways to make, brew or buy coffee why should you grind your own coffee? The best reason is flavor. Once coffee beans have been ground up and exposed to air, they start losing their flavor. By the time you get your store-bought grinds home, they have lost a lot of flavor. If you haven’t had fresh ground coffee, you haven’t had coffee yet.

Does coffee grind size really matter?

Since everyone has different preferred tastes, making the perfect cup of coffee isn’t just a simple science–it’s an art. Just like making a great pot of chili, you need to experiment with your equipment and ingredients until you get the exact taste you want.

Where do you start? You start with the grinds. Coffee beans are ground into different sizes for a reason. Your choices range from coarse to Turkish. Picking the grind depends on two different factors: 1) How are you brewing your coffee and 2) What is your personal taste? Grinding the coffee bean increases the surface area exposed to the hot water, and the smaller (finer) the grind, the more surface area is exposed, and the more flavor is extracted per second of brew time.

Read on for the general recommendations for matching grind size with brewing method.

When should I use which type of coffee grind?

While there is a science to matching grind size and brewing method it can be summed up in a simple formula: the longer the exposure to water, the coarser the grounds. For example, espresso machines use the finely ground coffee because the pressurized water passes through quickly.
With all the options, how do you decide which grind to use? Here is a quick rundown of the recommended grind size for each major brewing method:
Piles of ground coffee showing different grind levels

  • Extra Coarse – about the size of Nerds candy for cold brewing systems.
  • Coarse – about the size of kosher salt, for French Presses or Percolators.
  • Medium – about the size of coarse sand, for regular Drip machines.
  • Fine – think table salt, for specialty drips such as cone shaped bottoms rather than flat ones.
  • Extra Fine – a littler finer than sugar, primarily used in espresso machines.
  • Turkish – looks like flour or powdered milk, for use in Turkish Ibik stovetop coffee makers.

While these guidelines generally result in great tasting coffee, the best grind size will depend on your personal taste and specifics of your setup. Experiment a little with the grind size and other variables (ratio of coffee to water, coffee machine brew strength settings, speed of pour over, etc).

TIP: If your fresh coffee tastes too bitter, the flavor is likely too intense, so try a larger grind next time to yield a more mellow brew.

Types of coffee grinders – Which should you pick?

There are three basic types of grinders. The hand or manual grinders, the blade and the burr. True aficionados of coffee have their preferred method of grinding.

The hand or manual grinders are precisely that, mills that you crank yourself. Most of the brands can be adjusted from coarse to fine, depending on your preference. These can be very basic to high-tech, but they are all powered by you.

Blade grinders work much like a blender. Metal blades spin and cut into the coffee beans, chopping them into smaller pieces. The main disadvantages to blade type grinders are that: 1) they are not as precise as burr grinders and 2) the blade generates heat while grinding, which can scorch the grinds and release the coffee flavor before brewing.

Example of coffee grounds from blade and burr grinders
Burr grinders grind the beans between two opposing hard surfaces (burrs). Because the burrs maintain a consistent distance and speed, each bean goes through the burrs at the same speed and pressure, so the resulting grinds are much more consistent in size than with the blade method. Because there is no rapidly spinning blade, the grinds do not lose flavor due to heat. The potential disadvantages of burr grinders are: 1) some of them offer a small range of grinds, limiting the amount of optimizing you can do to your grind size and 2) price–burr grinders will generally be much more expensive than blade grinders.

The hand grinder and Burr grinder work on the same principle. Because they are adjustable, you modify settings to get your desired grind size. You put the beans in and start the grinding process.

How to grind coffee in a blade grinder

Partially ground coffee in a blade grinderThe blade coffee grinder is a little more labor intense. Because it grinds unevenly, you will never get an even product. The longer you run the blades, the smaller the flakes. Depending on the type and model, stopping and shaking the product and restarting will help get a more even finish.

Burr Grinder Options and Specifications

What should you look for in a burr coffee grinder? Every model has its own features and selling points. Here’s a breakdown of the main options:

Ceramic vs steel burrs

Ceramic burrs are harder than the steel burrs and can outlive them by as much as twice as long. But because they are more brittle than steel, they can chip on foreign objects. Ceramic burrs also transfer less heat on long grinds. But on shorter grind times there is very little heat transference from either style. Steel burrs have also been known to chip or dent if rocks slip through with the beans (be sure to check your beans before grinding!).

Conical vs flat burr grinders

Conical grinders are basically 2 stacked cones. A flat grinder is 2 parallel discs. Both burr types grind the coffee to a consistent size, and the debate over which is better is still ongoing. Conical grinders are generally more expensive.
Detail view of conical and flat burr grinder mechanisms

High speed vs Low speed grinders

High speed causes more friction and heat. Heat releases some of the flavor from the coffee bean before brewing. While most will argue about every aspect of the grinding process, most agree that less heat exposure before brewing is better.

Doser vs Non-doser coffee grinders

Internal view of a dosing grinder showing compartmentsDosers are grinders that have the capability of grinding up batches of coffee. They are great for places where a lot of coffee is going to be made–think coffee shops. They grind a large batch at a time and then most models have portion controls to enable you to pull a small amount at a time. They are typically impractical for home use unless you don’t mind throwing away the unused excess. But they are key for survival in a commercial coffee environment.

Stepped vs Non-stepped

Stepped grinders have pre-set adjustable levels. You just click onto the setting you want. Stepless (non-stepped) is free turning, allowing more fine-tuning. You can adjust non-stepped grinders to a much higher degree. (Think old car radios versus TV remotes – With the remote you press a button and always get the channel you press. With the radio dial, you spin and fiddle with it to the setting you want.)

Deciding on a burr grinder is just the beginning of the process. Figuring out what works for you and your coffee routine is part of the fun.

How to clean a coffee grinder

Like all appliances, keeping your grinder clean is going to keep it running longer and your brew tasting better. Pieces of beans can get stuck in the gears or hopper, and oil extracted from the coffee beans can turn sour if not cleaned out periodically.

There are several recommended ways to clean your coffee grinder. Here are a few items you need to get your grinder clean:

  • A soft cloth
  • A toothbrush
  • Toothpicks
  • Some spare coffee beans
  • Grinder cleaning pellets (or instant white rice)
  • Vacuum with brush attachments
  • A burr attachment screwdriver (for the truly adventurous)

There are basically three types of cleaning approaches: Quick, Light and Heavy-Duty:

Quick cleaning
Get in the habit of wiping down the grinder with a soft cloth. A quick wipe after each use will help keep the oil from clogging up. Brush off the extra grinds as well and you are done.

Light cleaning
Whether you are going for a light cleaning or to get rid of a previous flavored coffee you ground up yesterday, start with the cleaning pellets. Throw in the recommended amount of pellets and grind it out. Take your spare coffee beans and grind them up to push thru the remainder of the cleaning pellets. The pellets are not toxic but can affect the flavor of your coffee. Take your cloth and gently wipe down the outside and as much as you can reach of the inside. The cloth will help remove the oil build-up. Any removable parts can be taken off and wiped down at this time.

Heavy-duty deep clean
Sometimes you just need to do some serious deep cleaning on your burr grinder. As with the quick clean start with a round of cleaning pellets. Then remove all removable parts. All the plastic parts can be washed but need to be completely dry before reassembling. If they are dishwasher safe you can throw them in the dishwasher. Then, with the toothpick and toothbrush start working on getting all the nooks and crannies cleaned out. Depending on the model, you may be able to unscrew the top burr.

When you are fairly certain you have most of the debris use the vacuum hose and suck up the dust and grit. When you have everything clean and dry, reassemble your grinder. Then throw in some spare coffee beans and grind them out. This pushes out the rest of the cleaner pellets debris and also gives a small coating of oil back onto the grinders. Although we just spent the last few minutes cleaning all that oil off of the grinders, a small layer does help the machine grind better and keeps the burrs from oxidizing.

Just a quick note before using rice instead of cleaner pellets: check your warranty on your grinder. Many companies are now refusing to cover grinders that have used rice as a cleaner agent. If you use rice be sure to use instant rice–regular, non-instant rice is very hard and can damage your grinder. Also check for small stones in the rice before you use it in the grinder.

Are you ready to become a Coffee nerd?

While this is certainly not everything you need to know to start your own gourmet coffee shop, it does give you a good start. Figure out what you like, and what system you think will work best for you and wake up tomorrow with a supremely flavorful cup of fresh-ground coffee to get you going!

Check out our list of the best coffee grinders and best grind and brew coffee makers.

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