Coffee Filter Substitute – What You Can Use in a Pinch!

Imagine this: you wake up early, stumble out of bed, and wander over to your coffee maker. You start getting it all ready, switching the machine on, adding water, getting out the coffee beans. But then, it all comes to a screeching halt. You’re out of coffee filters. Oh no. Without that morning cup, you can’t function as a normal human. You rack your brain for any potential coffee filter substitutes. There has to be something around that you can use, right?!

Have no fear, we have you covered! There are a few household items you might have laying around that can act as a coffee filter substitute in a pinch. Grab one of the following suggestions, make that brew, and read ahead to learn what filters do, why they are needed, and how to function without them!

What You Need to Know Before using a Coffee Filter Substitute

It may seem obvious, but let’s get into what exactly a coffee filter does, so we can understand the necessary qualities when looking for appropriate coffee filter substitutes. A coffee filter is usually a thin piece of sturdy paper, meant to let through the coffee and hold back the grounds. 

It must be thin enough to let the liquid move through it at a relatively rapid pace, or else your coffee maker would overflow with coffee buildup. But it must also be strong enough to not disintegrate as it gets soaked in boiling water and the resulting coffee. It’s a fine line to walk, but today’s coffee filters get the job done every time.

Reasons to Not Use a Filter

This begs the question, are coffee filters absolutely necessary to make coffee? How did people make coffee before we had the capability to produce coffee filters? People have been drinking coffee since before the 15th century! So we know it is possible because of history, where they didn’t yet have fine mesh filters to strain the grounds.

Next we have to think about why we want to find a coffee filter substitute; are there reasons to not use a filter at all? Maybe you simply want to feel historical, or maybe you don’t want to create more waste (coffee filters are often compostable though!). 

Another reason to not use a filter is when going camping or backpacking. When you have to carry everything you need, every ounce matters. Creating a coffee setup that eliminates the need for coffee filters makes the process that much simpler.

5 Great Coffee Filter Substitutes

Now let’s get into the different choices best suited to work as a coffee filter substitute. You may have one, some, or all of these laying around, so challenge yourself to see which one works best for you! All of these alternatives were created when someone found themselves without a filter, showing that you are only limited by your creativity and resourcefulness. Give these a try and maybe you’ll find an even better option, so let us know how it goes!

Paper Towels 

This first coffee filter substitute is to use a paper towel. This is the most common go to item, one that most will have in the home already. Paper towels are a good alternative because they have similar qualities of being sturdy yet also porous. To use a paper towel, simply line the entire filter basket with paper towels and proceed as normal. If you’re worried about the paper towels disintegrating, add an extra layer to the bottom section.


In a similar vein, napkins work as a coffee filter substitute. Follow the same procedure as with the paper towels when making coffee. The main difference here is I would recommend a minimum of two to three layers, as napkins are often thinner than paper towels, and will fall apart with the hot water.


With this next option, we are moving into items that may not be present in all homes. Cheesecloth is a perfect option to use as a coffee filter substitute and has the bonus of being reusable! Cheesecloth comes in different grades, from finely woven cotton to a looser weave. Give it a couple folds, line the filter basket, and add your coffee! Making coffee will stain the cheesecloth, so be sure to give it a rinse after use and wash it before using it for another culinary purpose. If it isn’t cleaned, the residual coffee may change the flavor of whatever else you are making with it.

Muslin or Fine Cloth

A reusable option that more households will have is muslin or thin cloth, such as a fine hand towel. Not the intended use, but hey, we need our coffee! If you go this route, it is a good idea to test the flow capability beforehand by pouring water on it from the sink and making sure it passes through. Avoid thick bathroom style hand towels, because the coffee will soak into the towel rather than pass through.

Wire Mesh Filter

The last option is to use a wire mesh filter. If paper filters are not your thing, consider investing in a wire filter. It is designed to be easy to use and clean and has a mesh that is perfect for straining grounds. Note that this option is only for at home use and doesn’t take into consideration coffee making on the go, such as camping or backpacking.

2 Things to Never Use as a Coffee Filter Substitute

Now that we went over what you should use, let’s take a moment to look at what you should not use as a coffee filter substitute. There are a few instances with the potential to create a mess in your kitchen, or worse leach harmful chemicals into your drink.

Thick Cloth

As mentioned earlier, be wary of using any cloth that is too thick or fluffy. Using a thick towel will cause all the coffee to be absorbed into the towel, and little to none to drip down into the carafe. Then you will be left with a soggy, stained towel and no coffee to show for it. In the end, not the worst thing, but another hassle to deal with and you still won’t be caffeinated!

Anything Chemically Treated

On a more serious note, avoid using anything that has been chemically treated. The hot water will leach the chemicals out of the substitute filter and mix into the coffee, creating a potentially hazardous brew. While it is illegal to have most deadly toxins in household items, repeated exposure to certain chemicals can accumulate in your system and leave you feeling sick.

How to Make Coffee Without a Filter

By this point we’ve gone over what to do when you need a coffee filter substitute in a pinch, but what about moving away from ever needing one again? Good news is that there are multiple methods for creating coffee that don’t require a paper filter at all, meaning that you will never be stuck in this situation again.

Instant or Finely Ground Coffee

The first and easiest option is to switch to instant coffee. This is popular as an on the go option, because the coffee is ground so fine that it dissolves when hot water is added. You can buy it in single serving packets or attempt to make your own by putting beans into a food processor. When buying whole beans, have the barista grind it for you on the highest setting to achieve an extra fine grind. When making coffee this way, simply add boiling water and stir. Be careful because not all the grounds may dissolve, so avoid drinking the dregs.

Whipped Coffee

A fun twist on instant coffee is to create whipped coffee, also called dalgona coffee. To do this, combine equal parts water and instant coffee and a tablespoon of sugar. Then mix with a hand mixer until the consistency is that of whipped cream. Dollop the whipped coffee over ice and milk to create an iced macchiato type drink!

French Press

A French press coffee maker is the most popular way to never need a filter, all because of its clever design! In a French press, the filter is built in, removing the need to buy additional parts. A French press is favored by campers due to the ease and simplicity of the coffee making process. Just be sure to rinse the filter thoroughly after each use to get rid of pesky coffee grounds that can get stuck. 

Single Cup Coffee Machines

Lastly, single cup coffee machines that use pods are a great option for ease and convenience. There is minimal clean-up, and a whole host of flavors to choose from. The large drawback is that these create a lot of waste in the form of single use plastic pods.


There we have it, a brief overview of what to do when a coffee filter can’t be found. There are a number of coffee filter substitutes that can work to make you a cup and get you to the store to buy replacements. If you desire to move away from coffee filters all together, that is also possible in a number of ways. Whether you’re on the go or at home, coffee is always the answer to a sleepy morning, and the above tips will help you overcome any obstacles in your way!

Substitutes for coffee filters

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