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How to Use an Espresso Machine: Everything You Need to Know

Coffee Geek Lab / How to Use an Espresso Machine: Everything You Need to Know
Yurii Brown

Certified Barista

November 22, 2020

How to Use an Espresso Machine

Does your new espresso machine seem like a beast you cannot tame?

Don’t worry: espresso brewers are not that complicated.

Follow this simple step-by-step guide, and you will learn how to use an espresso machine in no time. Chances are, you will become friends with your espresso maker (and will enjoy the most delicious beverages in the comfort of your home).

What You Will Need

Before you learn how to use an espresso machine, you probably need to check whether you have all the needed equipment and accessories. Here they are:

  • Espresso maker. The main two types you can come across are semi-automatic and super-automatic. With a super-automatic machine, you don’t have to do much, as such brewers do all the work (including grinding the beans and tamping the grounds) (1). With a semi-automatic model, you will get more freedom to experiment with your espressos by changing the settings, altering the bean to water ratio, trying different coarsens levels, etc. I recommend semi-automatic espresso machines to those users who truly want to understand the brewing process (and wish to master it).
  • Burr grinder. Now, I recommend burr grinders because they allow for coarseness adjustments and can guarantee an even grind. With a blade grinder, you have to be very thorough and shake it occasionally when grinding if you want your beans to end up even and fine. Blade grinders are cheaper and might work better for budget shoppers, but burr grinders are much more reliable and versatile, which is ideal for espressos (2). Also, keep in mind that there are many great espresso machines with grinders, which eliminate the need to shop for a grinder.
  • Tamper. It’s usually included with the machine, but some models come with cheap plastic tampers. While there’s nothing wrong with plastic, such tampers have a short lifespan and tend to break rather soon. It’s better to get a steel tamper (it might only have a plastic handle). Also, pay attention to the handle. There are many good tampers with an ergonomic design that makes them lay in one’s hand quite comfortably (making the tamping process slightly easier).
  • Kitchen scales. This kitchen “accessory” is crucial if you want to be precise when brewing. You will need your kitchen scales to measure the beans for each shot, plus you might also check how much milk you use for specialty beverages.
  • Milk thermometer (optional). If you are serious about your foam, you may want to use a milk thermometer to achieve the optimal frothing temperature.

A quick note: there are many people who love espressos but don’t want to (or can’t) invest in a high-grade espresso maker. Here’s the good news: you can brew espressos without a machine, but you need to remember that the beverage won’t be as authentic without proper equipment.

Basic Terms to Understand the Process Better

Basic Terms to Understand the Process Better

Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/Coffee/comments/35xlsp/home_type_espresso_machine_group_handle_cleaning/

If you want to learn how to use an espresso machine, you probably also need to familiarize yourself with the main terms. After all, they are a part of the process:
  • Group head. It’s the part of the espresso machine that looks like a metal disc. This is where you insert and lock the portafilter when brewing beverages.
  • Portafilter. It’s one of the most important parts of an espresso machine. Every portafilter consists of a filter basket (where you place the coffee grounds) and a handle.
  • Steam wand. In other words, a milk frother that uses hot steam to turn milk into foam. 
  • Purging the steam wand. This means simply allowing the steam to exit the wand (without putting the wand into the milk) in order to remove any milk residue from the inside of the steamer.
  • Pulling a shot. Or simply put, brewing a shot of espresso. The “pulling” part comes from the old-style manual espresso makers, which required baristas to pull a lever to make a shot of espresso.
  • Crema. The tan-colored thin layer of your espresso. Crema comes out first when you are pulling a shot and then filters up to the top of the espresso.

How to Use an Espresso Machine, Step by Step

So, you’ve got the equipment you need, you know the necessary terms. Now it’s time to start brewing! Here are the steps:

  1. Turn your espresso machine and let it preheat. The thing is, it’s not recommended to start making coffee right after you’ve turned the machine on. If you want your brewer to reach the optimal temperature and make quality espressos, you need to give it some time to preheat. Depending on the model, this might take from a couple of minutes to around half an hour. Therefore, when planning to pull a shot, prepare the machine beforehand. You can speed the process up by pulling an empty shot. This means, pull an “espresso” without using the coffee grounds. The process will involve running hot water through the system and might help your machine preheat faster.
  2. Weigh and grind the beans. For a shot of espresso, around 20-22 grams of ground coffee is recommended. It’s better to use kitchen scales for precision, at least until you go through the process multiple times and can be sure that you’re using a proper amount of coffee (3). Transfer the grounds into your portafilter. Remember, different machines come with variable portafilter capacities. Some portafilters are larger than others and might not work with just 20 grams of grounds (such portafilters may require a little bit more to deliver the best performance). Check the specifications before pulling a shot, so that you know exactly how much coffee grounds you will need in the process.
  3. Tamp the grounds. Many aspiring baristas struggle with this step, as they aren’t sure how much force they need to apply in the process. My advice is: don’t overkill it. You don’t have to push with much force, just use a fair amount without trying too hard. The angle is much more important than force. You want to end up with an even puck, so make sure you press the tamper down straight (and not under an angle). An even puck will ensure proper saturation and extraction, which can affect the espresso flavor greatly. After you’re done tamping, brush off the coffee grounds from the top and the sides of the portafilter. If you leave them there, some might get into your cup. And remember: tamping takes practice. It might seem challenging at first, but after a few times, you will get the hang of it.
  4. Pull your shot. Insert the portafilter and start pulling by pressing a button on your brewer. Different espresso machines use various bar pressure to extract espressos, so the end result may vary depending on what you’re using. Typically, it takes around 20-30 seconds to pull a shot, so pay attention to the time when making espressos. If it takes you way too long, perhaps your grounds are too coarse. And just like that, if you pull espressos within a few seconds, your grinds might be too fine.
  5. Drink and enjoy. Of course, your first espresso might not be perfect. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy it. After all, you’ve put a lot of effort into it, so you deserve to be proud of it. And if you want to take your coffee game to a new level, you can learn how to drink espressos properly.

What Beverages Can You Make with an Espresso Machine?

types of coffee drinks

Source: https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/types-of-coffee/

Here’s the deal:

There are many budget-friendly, highly-rated espresso machines under $1000 that can be used to make specialty coffee (yes, like those beverages we often buy from cozy coffee houses). Most of them are usually equipped with a steam wand, which means you can make multiple coffee drinks at home. Here are just a few examples:

  • Latte. Pull one shot of espresso, add around 8 oz. of steamed milk and a thick layer of foam (roughly 1/5 inch).
  • Cappuccino. Pull one or two shots of espresso, add around 2 oz. of steamed milk and the same amount of foamed milk. 
  • Flat White. Pull one shot of espresso, add approximately 4 oz. of steamed milk.
  • Mocha. Pull one espresso shot, add 1-2 oz. of chocolate syrup or powder (you can also use quality cocoa powder), add around 3 oz. of steamed milk and a thick layer of foam (around 1 inch). You can top the beverage up with whipped cream.
  • Macchiato. Pull one shot of espresso and add 1-2 teaspoons of steamed milk.

F.A.Q.

Can I make espressos with a cheap machine?

Yes. You can check among the best espresso machines under $200 if you are on a tight budget. However, keep in mind that some of them might not deliver the results more expensive models can offer. Not all cheap espresso machines can reach the proper bar pressure when pulling shots.

What roast is the best for espressos?

Your local roaster would probably recommend either an espresso or a French roast (medium or medium-dark). Both are great for home espresso brewers.

Can I use any beans for espressos?

Yes, but don’t neglect special espresso blends. They are meant to deliver the smoothest flavor with low acidity. 

How many bars of pressure do I need to make espressos?

The recommended minimum is 9 bars. Many modern espresso machines for home use can reach up to 15 bars of pressure.

What temperature should the water be?

The optimal brewing temperature is between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.

How do I know if my espresso is good?

This is rather subjective, because as long as you enjoy the taste, your espresso is good. However, there are some general characteristics that a good espresso shot should possess. For example, espresso has to have visible crema. It should taste slightly bitter, rich, and never watery or sour (if it tastes sour, you probably took too much time to extract it). It should also be thicker than your regular drip coffee.

What ground is the best for espressos?

Fine grind is recommended (finer than salt, to give you a rough idea).

Wrapping Up

Now you know that making espressos is not such a challenging task. All you need is proper equipment and to follow the easy steps described above. Make sure you pick fresh beans, and you will end up with a great-tasting shot of espresso every single time.

Do you want to make espressos only or specialty beverages too? And what kind of espresso machine are you planning to use? Let us know in the comments!

References

  1. Lydia Anderson (April 17, 2020). Coffee machines explained: How to pick between bean-to-cup, pod and espresso models. Retrieved from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/product-reviews/electricals/a656779/which-is-the-best-type-of-coffee-machine/
  2. Paul Goodman (February 22, 2020). Blade vs. Burr vs. Manual: The Complete Coffee Grinder Guide. Retrieved from https://delishably.com/beverages/The-different-types-of-grinder-for-coffee
  3. Liz Clayton (October 24, 2018). How to Make Espresso at Home: A Starter Guide. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/how-to-make-espresso/

Yurii Brown

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