If you’re just starting in the world of espresso and other fine coffee drinks, the specs and features your espresso maker offers can seem really overwhelming. Each method of coffee preparation is a bit different, and adjusting between one and another can take some time and practice. Thankfully, once you’ve figured out how to use an espresso machine, you’ve basically figured out how to use the others. There are some adjustments from one model to the next, but the basic process is going to be very similar.
1. Getting Ready
It might seem like the espresso maker itself is going to make all the difference in how your drink turns out. After all, why else would there be so many different options? The specific machine you use actually doesn’t play as much of a role as you think it does – at least, not in the grand scheme of things. There are three big variables that affect your coffee more than your machine does: your water, your coffee, and your extraction. Understanding each variable is the key to crafting high-quality espresso.
The water you use should be clean and cold. Any impurities in your water will change the taste of your coffee, and in some cases they may even damage your machine. Many higher-end espresso machines have a built-in water filter, but we still recommend using pre-filtered or distilled water whenever possible. If you are in control of the temperature that your machine heats the water, this should be around 200 degrees Fahrenheit (around 95 degrees Celsius). There is some debate about what the perfect extraction temperature is, but as long as you’re close, your espresso will be drinkable.
Your coffee should be ground to the texture of sand, and measured to the appropriate ratio for your taste. Most coffee connoisseurs use between two and three grams of water per gram of coffee, but this is largely a matter of personal preference. The quality of the beans is important here, too – mass-produced grocery store varieties will result in a lower-quality drink than small-batch locally-grown beans will. Whenever possible, try to use the beans within one to two weeks of roasting, as this is usually when they’re at their best. Check with your local roaster for their specific recommendations, as the optimum time will be different from roast to roast.
Your ideal extraction time will depend on your personal preferences, as well as the specifications of your machine, but it should be somewhere between 25 and 30 seconds per shot. If your machine isn’t dispensing enough espresso within this time, it may be clogged with sediment and in need of a descaling – check your manual for the proper procedure for your machine.
5. Using the Machine
If your machine came with a user’s manual, you should read it as soon as convenient – preferably before trying to brew your first drink. The controls for each espresso machine may be in different places, and they may use different symbols. Reading the manual before you begin will help you be aware of these differences so you don’t accidentally push the wrong buttons.
6. Do your measuring.
You should have all your ingredients measured out before you begin. There are general guidelines for the perfect ratios to use, but this ratio will be affected by the coffee you use and the flavor profiles you prefer. For best results, your beans should be finely ground immediately before brewing.
7. Fill your machine.
Fill your portafilter with your freshly-ground coffee, and tamp it with about 30 pounds (13.6 kg) of pressure. If you’re not sure what this pressure should feel like, get your bathroom scale and try it out. Super-automatic machines will do this step for you. Next, pour cold, clean water into your water reservoir. For the freshest-tasting espresso, use fresh water every time, and resist the urge to fill the water tank completely.
8. Preheat your machine.
Many modern espresso machines heat up in less than five minutes, but some may take as long as 45 minutes, so be sure you’ve left yourself enough time. You’ll want to preheat your glass, as well, by filling it with hot (clean) water and letting it sit while you prepare your ingredients. This extra care will help your drink resist rapid-cooling, which can alter the taste.
9. Steam your milk (optional).
Lattes and cappuccinos require steamed milk, which may or may not be handled by your machine. If your espresso maker does have a milk frothing function, you’ll want to steam the milk before you brew your shot. It takes some practice to get the right microfoam to do latte art, but if this is something that interests you, it’s not hard to get started.
10. Brew your shot.
If your machine automatically times your shots for you (which many do – your manual will tell you), the rest of the process is as easy as turning the machine on. If your machine doesn’t do the rest automatically, you’ll want to watch it to make sure the shot itself takes around 25 seconds to brew. Some machines offer a valve to open/close the portafilter – when this is closed, the brewing is finished.
11. Clean your machine.
The clean-up process for most machines is quick and painless, as long as it’s done soon after the machine has cooled down. Empty your portafilter into the trash or a compost bin, and rinse it out. Be sure to clean any residue from the bottom of the portafilter as well. If your machine has a backflushing feature, use it now. Otherwise, a quick shot without grounds in place should help to clear most debris.
From time to time, it may be necessary to give your machine a deeper cleaning. Your manual should let you know how to perform the necessary maintenance on your machine. Some machines also offer self-cleaning functions, which can make the process even simpler. Under normal circumstances, your machine should be descaled every 1-3 months. If your machine starts functioning abnormally, descaling is often one of the first troubleshooting steps, and regular cleaning can help prevent the majority of issues.