15 Alternatives to Coffee Filters (That Are not Paper Towels)

coffee in a filter

The average coffee drinker uses an automated drip coffee machine, myself included on many mornings. While no one will claim it is the best cup of joe, everyone can definitely agree that it is convenient. Unfortunately, running out of filters is a common problem that often happens at the most inopportune time. If you are experiencing this – have no fear! I have 15 options (not paper towels) for you that can work in place of your normal coffee filter.

While unconventional, there are lots of home items that can be used in place of filters. Reusing a filter, reusable filters, cupcake papers, thin mesh sieves, tea bags, many thin fabrics, and brewing alternatives are all great ways to get your cup of caffeine when you are without a paper filter.

Of course, each item has its ups and downs, but I understand the need (not just a want) to get in your morning coffee for sure. While some of the listed items may seem crazy – hear me out – they will all do the trick in a pinch as long as you are willing to work with them. You might even find yourself switching to these options for the long haul.

Your Last Used Filter

I wanted to put your used filter at the top of the list because it is hopefully going to save you the most time and stress over a makeshift filter. If you are about to make coffee and have found yourself out of filters, you can reuse the one that is already in the machine. If you have already tossed it, you should obviously carry on to other options. 

To use your pre-used coffee filter as an alternative coffee filter for your upcoming brew, you can carefully remove the filter and allow most of the grounds to fall out, leaving you with a mostly-clean filter. Then just place it back in and reuse it with the new ground on top. 

Chances are, you will not even taste the difference as many people reuse filters each day (particularly when using non-automatic drip coffee makers). Of course, this is not a long term solution considering the degradable nature of paper filters, but using this once should work just fine.

Reusable Filters

While it is possible you have a forgotten, reusable coffee filter around, I wanted this high on the list to bring it to your attention. Having a reusable filter around is a life-saver. I use one often, but also keep paper filters as a backup (just in case the reusable filter tears or breaks and becomes unusable). 

Even if this is not saving you this time, I suggest that you highly consider purchasing a reusable filter for your drip machine, even if it is not your go-to filter preference. You will find that a reusable coffee filter is also environmentally-friendly and can be an effective way to brew your morning cup of Joe. Just be sure that when you dump out the grounds, you are careful that they end up in your trash instead of down your kitchen sink.

Cupcake Papers

Cupcake papers can be a great alternative to coffee filters when you are in a pinch. The only downside is that they are often much smaller than necessary for a standard drip machine. To use a cupcake paper as a coffee filter, you have three options for making this work. 

First, you could use multiple cupcake filters, and stagger them around the sides of the container, with one flat in the bottom to keep the grounds in the best. This could lead to overflow from slow dripping if not done well, however. 

The second option is to use the cupcake paper as a manual drip filter, by putting it in a funnel over the mug and pouring hot water over it. Of course, this option might take a bit longer and is (slightly) more labor-intensive.

The final option for using a cupcake paper as a coffee filter is to tie coffee inside of the cupcake filter like a tea-bag, and steep it in your mug as if you are making tea. Of course, in this way, you will want to be particularly mindful of any grounds that absorb into the water. Just be sure to have a strainer handy if the need arises.

Thin Mesh Sieves

If you have a small metal sieve, this can work perfectly for making your coffee in lieu of a filter. A thin metal sieve can act almost as well as a reusable coffee filter. Since thin mesh/metal sieves are found in most home kitchens, this should not be too difficult to make work.

One of the only downsides to using a thin mesh sieve as a coffee filter alternative is that some of the finer grounds will be able to slip through. This is usually not enough to ruin a cup of coffee but could leave a thin layer of “mud” at the bottom of the mug. Definitely nothing we have not all experienced before anyway, but obviously, it is less desirable than a true filter that would otherwise remove these particles.

Tea Bags

While using tea bags is not a preferred method by most for a coffee filter alternative, it can be super handy. Instead of filtering your coffee through the drip, you can heat up the water, and let the coffee steep in a tea bag to the strength you desire. 

Keep in mind that when using a tea bag as a coffee filter, the coffee will not taste quite as “fresh”, if that makes sense, but it will definitely get the job done for you. Just be sure that you allow ample time with this method as the straining could take a bit longer than you might otherwise anticipate.

A Cheese Cloth

As we bring up using cheese cloths as an alternative to a coffee filter, it is important to note that we are moving on in this list to a more fabric-focused direction. If you are averse to odd filtering methods (that might even sound gross at first), maybe skip to the 12th item of the list. Still, if you are open to this idea, it can be an incredibly handy solution if you happen to run out of coffee filters (or are simply looking for an alternative).

Cheese cloths are perfect for filtering coffee when you do not have a coffee filter. They are made for allowing liquid to pass through but are so fine that they do not allow grounds to get by. They also allow for a faster drip than many items on the list due to their thinness. I have used cheese cloths for all sorts of filtering and straining purposes, and I highly suggest this option if it is available to you. 

Dish Towel

In a pinch, a dish towel can also work as an alternative coffee filter. This should be something that is near enough to get you through this day. And, while I should not have to say it, make sure it is a clean towel. You definitely don’t want a used towel taste in the coffee. 

Also, be aware of the thickness of the towel if you are choosing to use it as a makeshift coffee filter when you find yourself in a bind (but still needing that energy drip). You want to get the thinnest, least “designed” dish towel possible if you plan on your coffee making it through the pot and into your cup. Ideally a thin white, or possible striped towel will work well.

Handkerchief

In a similar vein to a cheesecloth, a handkerchief is perfect for the job of an alternative coffee filter. While it is less likely people still have these around as often, it will be of great use to those of you who do. 

Handkerchiefs are thin enough to allow the water to drip through similar to a paper coffee filter, but are also sturdy and do not have a large chance of changing the flavor. Who would have thought that a handkerchief could be used in the kitchen in such a way as this?

Socks

While this may sound gross, and very well could be, think about how much sense it makes to use a clean sock as a makeshift coffee filter. In a real pinch, with clean socks, they are a great mechanism to filter your coffee. 

They are shaped well for you, so you do not have to worry about the grounds getting out. Socks are also usually thin enough to allow the water to pass well, and everyone has normal socks around. 

Obviously, make sure they are clean. Also, run them under water or even boil them to get any “fresh linen” taste out of them. Remember that with using this method or any other like it, you want to make sure that the textile of the fabrics used does not linger and enter into your favorite coffee mug along with your fresh morning brew.

A Sheet

While a sheet is a very possible option to filter your coffee, I left it lower on the list. Why? It is rare that someone has an old sheet lying around that they are willing to ruin for a piece of fabric the size of, well, a sock.

 Sheets are often thin, breathable, and without any extra fluff or padding which makes them a great alternative coffee filter if you are in a bind. If you have an old sheet that’s around, this can be the perfect thing to cut and create a filter with.

An Old T-Shirt

Not willing to give up an entire sheet for a cup of coffee? A t-shirt can do the trick. I promise this is the last piece of clothing I will suggest. Everyone has an old t-shirt that doesn’t fit, and that they will never use. Chances are it is clean and in a drawer right now. If you are able to spare that concert t-shirt from middle or high school, I think this is a perfectly reasonable time to do so.

No Filter at All (Cowboy Coffee or Mud Coffee)

There are two types of no-filter coffee that are readily available if you are willing to utilize them. They go by many different names and are often used in other countries as a primary brewing method. 

Cowboy Coffee

This is where you add the grounds to a pot or kettle and boil them in the water. I do this whenever I go camping, it saves on the number of dishes I bring and it makes a great cup of coffee. The downside is there are often grounds in the mug, and they take a long time to settle due to the method. Still, worth it for sure- sometimes I even prefer it.

Mud Coffee

Mud coffee, while sounding unappetizing, is an easy method of brewing. You simply add a couple of teaspoons of grounds to a mug, and pour in the hot water. Allow it a few minutes to brew, which will also be a good amount of time for the grounds to settle at the bottom. Just drink until you are close to the bottom, and you will definitely see the “mud” on the bottom composed of wet grounds.

Personally, I prefer the cowboy method because it allows for fewer grounds in the mug (and more coffee!), but it may be more likely to leave grounds unsettled. I suggest trying both out at some point and seeing which you prefer, that way you know next time you are in a pinch!

Use a French Press

Using a French press is a little different than just an alternative to coffee filters; it is a whole brewing system that is highly regarded by most coffee enthusiasts. Still, using a French press, which many people have hidden away, allows for you to choose the brew-time, strength, and amount very easily. It also does not require a real filter because the filter is built-in to the press. 

Maybe you have not thought about this item that you own in quite some time. If you have this around (maybe tucked away in a cabinet somewhere, definitely clean it off and give it a go. If not, I suggest purchasing one, because they make an amazing cup of coffee – perfect for a lazy weekend morning (or in a pinch). 

Use a Moka Pot

If you live in an older house, near your grandparents, or have a father like mine, there is a Moka pot somewhere around. Moka pots are a classic way to make coffee for average people. They are also great for camping, good for traveling, and are super easy to use. 

While this post is not a how-to of Moka pots, this is an option that many people do not even realize is available to them when looking for a filter alternative. I use these, especially when traveling to other countries and renting various apartments and homes. 

Instant Coffee

I cannot honestly suggest that you use instant coffee often. I may even take sock-coffee over it. But, there is no doubt that it is convenient for someone on-the-go. Instant coffee is super easy, you get hot water and scoop it in, then stir. No need to worry about (too many) grounds or even cleaning or creating a filter. This could be the way to go, or at least a good option to keep around the house if you want to be certain that you will never go without your morning coffee.

Why Not Use Paper Towels for a Coffee Filter?

If you have done any research prior to this article, you have probably seen paper towels as the only alternative, or top of the list on every list. While the paper towel works, I am not of the belief that they provide the best filter for your morning brew. 

Unlike metal and cloth, paper towels often contain chemicals that can get into your coffee when used as a filter. They can also tear much more easily than other options, leaving you with a mess and grounds all over your coffee. 

If you are in a real pinch and know your paper towels are not laden with hazardous chemicals, then by all means use one as a filter. I, however, would rather find a sieve or a clean cloth than have to deal with the potential issues of a paper towel filter.

Conclusion

Wow! That was a lot of options and information. I’m sure some of the options on this list surprised you and others you would never do. My hope is that overall, one of the many options was able to help you get your coffee in. While the options are primitive, and others are probably out of reach, this can give ideas for the future of multi-purpose things to keep, or other coffee brewing systems to invest in and try. 

While it is never fun to run out of coffee filters unexpectedly, just about everyone has at least one alternative that they can do to still brew that cup of coffee in the morning. Some are much less glamorous than others, and to many, it will not be worth it. You can always hop down the street to a shop, or ask neighbors if they have any coffee filters. 

At least some of the options on this list, however, are ideas that will keep you caffeinated no matter what. If nothing else, use this moment as a lesson to invest in a way to get coffee without your standard filters. Having a backup can be as affordable as a couple of dollars, and can save you much more than that in time and stress.

Tim S.

Tim loves roasting, brewing, and experimenting with coffee. After years of perfecting this craft, working as a barista, and owning a small coffee service in college, he has decided to share his knowledge with the world.

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