Ask any coffee lover for their go-to morning caffeine fix and chances are, it’s an espresso.
While there are many ways to make a short, strong shot like the Italians, you’ll need a machine to benefit from the pressure required to generate authentic espresso.
Whether you opt for am inexpensive manual espresso maker, an upscale super-automatic espresso machine, or a labor-intensive semi-automatic machine that gives you more freedom to dial everything in, you’re spoiled for choice.
Before we outline how you can make great espresso at home with your new machine, a few words first about espresso makers more generally.
I. How Do Espresso Machines Work?
All espresso machines work on the same simple principle. Steam – 9 bars of pressure is the recommended minimum – forces hot water through a puck of finely ground coffee.
The water has 4 phases:
- Water source
- Group head
Now, before we push on and show you how all this comes together and results in an intoxicatingly rich shot of coffee to kickstart your day, we’ll take a moment to clarify some terminology.
II. Espresso Terminology: The Basics
- Crema: This is the pale liquid that comes out when you start extracting your shot of espresso. Once the much darker espresso comes out of the machine, the paler liquid makes its way upwards resulting in a tan layer on the top
- Group head: The group head is a metal disc into which you slot the portafilter. This is also where the hot and highly pressurized water is distributed
- Portafilter: This is a handle with a filter basket. You place your ground espresso beans in the portafilter. The water from the group head also runs through here
- Pull a shot: Pulling a shot is an expression coined when baristas needed to physically pull a lever to make a shot of espresso
- Purge the steam wand: When you purge the steam wand, this forces steam out of the wand so no residue remains while heating it at the same time
- Tamp the espresso grounds: When you compact your espresso grounds into your portafilter, this is known as tamping. By eliminating any cracks and crevices, this allows the pressurized water to extract even more flavor from your grounds
OK, with that quick primer, you should now find yourself familiar with the terms you’ll encounter when trying to get to the bottom of making the perfect espresso.
While all espresso machines have slight differences, they all work on the same foundation. We’ll highlight the components that count without getting too technical.
III. How Is an Espresso Machine Built?
- Water source
- Group head
The water needed for an espresso machine to work can either come from an integrated water reservoir or a consistent supply of water through a plumbed connection.
The pump is the beating heart of any great espresso machine.
Now, you’ll see a great deal of advertising that pushes the amount of pressure the machine delivers. This is nothing more than clever marketing for the most part. You should ensure that any machine you want to use for making authentic espresso has around 9 bars of pressure. This is the rough equivalent of 130 psi.
It’s this pressure that’s responsible for forcing the boiling water through that puck of coffee grounds and generating the rich espresso you crave.
The pressure is delivered through by an electric pump, either a rotary vane or vibratory pump.
Next up, you’ve got the boiler to consider.
Before you get to that pressure, you’ll need boiling water and this comes courtesy of the onboard water boiler.
The core purpose of this boiler is to heat then hold the pressurized water coming from the pump.
As the water makes its way down the espresso machine, the final stop it makes is in the group head. Within this group head, you’ll find the portafilter and room for it to lock into place, a means of activating the pump. The water is then able to make its way from boiler to portafilter.
OK, now you know the terms used to discuss making espresso, and you also have a solid understanding of the way these espresso machines are made.
When it comes to the end result in your cup, the quality hinges on several factors. The grind and the tamp are both crucial. The majority of machines are automatic so you shouldn’t need to tinker around with the size of the shot.
Your goal is simple: to produce an espresso with an even and golden crema.
Sounds simple, but how do you go about racking up that deep and powerful shot?
IV. How To Make Coffee Using an Espresso Machine
The first thing you need to do is choose the best espresso machine for your needs.
There’s no right or wrong answer here so focus on what makes the smoothest fit for you and the amount of effort you’re prepared to put in making espresso.
If you don’t mind putting in a little time and effort, and you’re looking to dial in the variables of the brewing process, a manual espresso maker can work well.
With a semi-automatic espresso machine, most functions are automated, but there’s a switch for extraction that you can activate or deactivate. This type of machine has a learning curve to master, but you’ll enjoy a great deal of freedom in return.
Fully-automatic espresso machines do everything for you while a super-automatic machine comes with a coffee grinder baked in.
The next thing to consider is whether or not you have a separate grinder. While you can use a manual grinder, you’re better off investing in an electric burr grinder. You can even find grinders for espresso. In the case of super-automatic machines, these come with a grinder saving you from yet another piece of paraphernalia.
Whatever type of grinder you choose, you’ll benefit enormously from grinding fresh beans directly before brewing your espresso. Coffee beans degrade rapidly once ground. If you buy pre-ground coffee, it will already be past its best by the time you get it home.
You should also weigh your coffee on a scale. Beans vary in terms of density. Try gauging your beans by eye and by volume and you’re asking for inconsistency. And consistency, at the end of the day, is what you’re looking for. Once you’ve dialed in your espresso brewing method, you can easily replicate this each time. Accuracy is vital if you want to achieve this, though.
OK, now it’s time for the straightforward process of making the best espresso possible…
V. What To Do
- Switch on your espresso maker and preheat it: Many espresso makers need half an hour or so to preheat. Need to pour a shot in a hurry? Shortcut the process by removing the coffee grounds from the portafilter and pouring a blank shot.
- Top up the water tank: Make sure you use the best quality water possible. Bottled water or filtered water is the best bet. With the vast bulk of the content of your espresso being water, don’t shortchange yourself here.
- Weigh and grind your coffee beans: As per our instructions above, measure and grind your beans. With great water and freshly ground beans – you’ll want a fine grind for espresso – you give yourself the best chance of pouring a mouth-watering shot. If your espresso maker comes with an onboard grinder, all you need to do is grind directly into the portafilter. Remove any excess coffee with your hands then you’re ready for tamping…
- Tamp the coffee grounds: You need to ensure your coffee beans are evenly distributed. Either use the side of your finger to level off the grounds or tap the side of your portafilter gently to achieve the same result. Don’t use too much pressure here, though. Exercise a light touch. You should resist the temptation to rush this process. Once mastered, you’ll be leveling off those grounds like a barista.
- Pour your espresso shot: You should take from 20 to 30 seconds to pull an espresso shot. This will yield 2oz of intense, concentrated coffee. The result should be rich, sweet, and dark. The good news? If you get this wrong, practice makes perfect!
- Dial in your shot: Check the pressure gauge if your machine has one. If not, you can make your first test by tasting the espresso. If your espresso shot pulls too quickly, you should try a finer grind. If it’s taking too long to pull and dragging, use a coarser grind and see what happens. When you switch grind sizes, you’ll also need to change your portafilter. The same is the case if you change from a light roast to a dark roast or vice-versa. If you taste your espresso and recoil at the bitterness, it’s over-extracted. Get a sour taste? That’s under-extracted espresso.
From this stage, it’s all about practice and, to a large extent, personal preference. Keep dialing in those variables until every element of your espresso making is ready to roll out with ease and the same results every single time.
Right, we’ll tail off today with some of the most frequently asked questions about how to use an espresso machine.
1) What kind of coffee do I need for my espresso machine?
You can use regular coffee, but this is not ideal as you require fine grounds for the best espresso. If you’re stuck for inspiration, check out our guide to the best espresso beans.
2) What roast works best with espresso machines?
A dark espresso roast or a French roast both work very well in an espresso machine.
3) What other drinks can I make with my espresso machine?
You can use your espresso as base to make all kinds of longer and creamier coffees. From latte and cappuccino to macchiato and mocha, you’re spoiled for choice when you start off with a shot of espresso. Use half the amount of water for an even more intense espresso – a ristretto – or use twice as much for a more diluted americano. You can use a steam wand or a manual alternative for frothing and steaming your milk.
4) Is it necessary to look for a machine with 15 bars of pressure?
It’s not essential, no. 9 bars of pressure is more than enough to generate a strong and rich shot with the crema you’re looking for. Anything beyond this is overkill.
5) What temperature should the water be for espresso?
The water should be heated to between 195F and 205F for the tastiest espresso the way the Italians make it. Use fresh, clean water.
Well, if you came here today with absolutely no idea about how to make espresso at home, that should have changed by now.
Our core focus today has been on brewing authentic espresso using a machine. Another pocket-friendly option is to use a single-serve machine such as a Nespresso or Keurig. These will give a reasonable approximation of espresso even if purists turn up their noses at this eco-unfriendly machines.
Another option is to use a moka pot. These lack the requisite pressure to make real espresso, but you’ll get a deep and full-bodied coffee with relatively little effort.
Manual and lever espresso machines are not to everyone’s taste but they do generate tasty espresso.
Now, before you go, we’d urge you to bookmark LaMano, and we’d also like to ask you a favor…
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