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How to Use an Espresso Machine

Sheryl Cannes
Updated on: November 18, 2022

A trip to the coffee shop every morning gets expensive. But how do you start your day without that perfect espresso? Espresso machines save you money in the long-run, but they also let you develop and make an espresso that’s specifically adjusted to your tastes. A rich cup of espresso is a skill that’s worth honing to perfectly satiate your coffee habit. It takes practice and a little experimentation to find how to make the perfect shot with your machine.

How to Use an Espresso Machine in 6 Steps

  1. Preheat: Turn on the machine and give it 25 to 30 minutes to warm up.
  2. Grind: Measure and grind the coffee beans.
  3. Tamp: Evenly distribute beans in the portafilter and tamp straight down with a light touch.
  4. Pull: Take 20 to 30 seconds to pull your first shot.
  5. Dial it in: Check the pressure and make adjustments to the grind to get the best flavor.

Make it your own: Drink it straight or add other ingredients to make your perfect shot.

Preheat the Espresso Machine

Temperature is a big factor in the success of your espresso. The water needs to reach and maintain an optimal temperature between 200 to 208 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the water extracts the full oils and flavor from the beans.

It takes an espresso machine 25 to 30 minutes to preheat, so start this process well in advance. The time it takes to reach temperature varies from machine to machine, so yours may take more or less time.

Pull a blank shot on mornings when you’re in a hurry to shortcut your way to a preheated machine. To pull a blank shot, run hot water through the portafilter without any grounds in it. It preheats the filter without having to wait for the machine to do it for you.

Grind the Beans

The type and roast of the coffee beans and the grind heavily influence the taste of the espresso. Coffee beans meant for espresso are typically a medium to dark roast. Espresso grounds don’t stay in contact with the water as long as for regular coffee. The darker roast helps the beans release more flavor in less time.

The fineness of the grind also affects how much of the beans’ oils get extracted later in the process. If they’re too coarse, the shot could be weak and lack flavor. Too fine, and you could end up with a bitter, over-extracted shot. Later in the process, you’ll dial in the grind, temperature, and pressure to perfect your results.

Fresh coffee grounds offer the best flavor. Some espresso machines have a built-in grinder, while others don’t. If the grinder is built-in, the machine will automatically grind the beans into the portafilter. All you’ll have to do is remove any extra grounds on the edge before tamping.

If you have to grind the beans in a standalone grinder, you’ll manually add the grounds to the portafilter. You can either even them out in the portafilter by gently tapping it or remove any mounds by gently using the side of your finger. The grounds should completely fill the portafilter without mounding to one side or the other. However, you don’t want to press down on the grounds as you even them out. Leave that to the next step in the process.

Whether the grinder is built-in or not, remove any grounds from the lip of the portafilter.

Tamp the Grounds

You now tamp the grounds. A tamp compresses the grounds to create a puck through which pressure will force the water. As the pressure forces the water through the puck, it extracts the most (and best) oils and flavors.

We talked about even coffee ground distribution in the last step, but check one more time to make sure the grounds are even with no mounds or valleys. Give a final tap to the portafilter to completely settle the grounds.

Use the tamper to tamp straight down with gentle, even pressure. It takes practice to master using the tamp. You don’t want to press too much as that can create too much resistance for the water during extraction. The resulting puck should have an even, flat surface. Once you’ve achieved that, twist the tamp and release. That final twist leaves a “seated puck” and helps maintain even extraction in the next step.

A few coffee grounds may make their escape at this point. Remove any grounds from the lip or side of the portafilter. At this point, there’s potential for your perfect shot to go wrong. Try to be slow and deliberate as you transfer the portafilter and puck to the espresso machine. Any cracks around the edge of the puck can create channels that result in uneven extraction.

Pull the First Shot

All that preparation brings you to pulling the first shot. A regular cup of drip coffee takes four or five minutes to cook and steep. An espresso takes 20 to 30-seconds to pull because of the roast, grind, and pressure used to make the brew. You can expect about two ounces, or what’s considered a double shot. The espresso will pour through the portafilter directly into your cup. The shot should be dark, sweet, and rich.

Dial-In (Adjust) the Shot

If your first pull doesn’t have the rich sweetness you love, you can now dial in your shot. The best espresso machines have a pressure gauge that indicates pressure levels during the pull. Pressure is usually measured in bars on an espresso machine. Nine bars is typically the sweet spot. However, your preferred coffee beans and grind may require a different pressure to produce optimum flavor. If you don’t have a pressure gauge, you’ll have to rely on taste alone.

Pay attention to how quickly the espresso comes out of the machine. If it comes out slow, you may need a finer grind. Too slow, and the shot may taste bitter from over-extraction. If the espresso comes out too quickly, it can taste sour from under extraction.

If you change the grind or beans, you’ll need to replace the portafilter basket. Any mixing of beans or grind in the portafilter affects how the hot water moves through the puck.

Make It Your Own

From here, it’s about making the espresso into your personal favorite brew. There are many ways to customize your morning espresso. Add steaming milk to make either a cappuccino or latte. Stick with a single shot or add your favorite flavored syrup. You can become your own barista without the expense of a morning coffee.

Espresso Machine Alternatives

These machines can be pricey, especially if they’re automatic or semi-automatic espresso machines. However, espresso machines aren’t the only way to make espresso. Some more affordable alternatives include a French Press, Moka pot, or Aeropress.

They each use a slightly different method, though many factors like the grind, water temperature, and pressure are of universal importance to the final taste of the espresso. Of course, espresso roast coffee beans reign supreme when using these other methods, too.

FAQs

Do I need to clean my espresso machine every day?

While your home machine doesn’t need the maintenance of a professional espresso maker, there is some recommended daily maintenance.

– Remove the grounds from the filter basket after every shot. Rinse and wipe it out before making a new shot.
– Dry the portafilter before loading it with more grounds or before putting the machine away for the day.
– Attach the filter basket to the group (group heads are the portion of the espresso machine that attach to the portafilter), and run fresh water through it to rinse out any leftover coffee grounds.

Espresso machines need deep cleanings as often as once a week if you’re using them daily. Read through the owner’s manual to learn how and which components to clean in this deeper maintenance process.

What kind of coffee beans should I use?

Coffee beans come in different roasts. The short extraction time used to make an espresso works better with medium-dark to dark roasts. They may be labeled espresso beans, but there’s really no difference between espresso and coffee beans. The depth of the roast is all that sets them apart. Darker roasts have richer oils that, in turn, produce the richer crema associated with espresso.

How much caffeine is in a shot of espresso?

One ounce of espresso is considered a single shot. It contains approximately 64 mg of caffeine. In comparison, an eight-ounce cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine or just under 12 mg per ounce. The average adult can safely drink 400 mg of caffeine per day, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Keep in mind that some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Restlessness, sleeplessness, irritability, fast heartbeat, and muscle tremors can be indicators that your caffeine consumption is too high for your biochemistry. That doesn’t mean you need to cut caffeine out of your life completely. However, you may need to be more aware of how much and when you’re consuming caffeine.

The Perfect Brew

Home espresso machines give you control over each espresso shot. Small adjustments like changes in bars of pressure, the quality of the water in the water tank, and the temperature of your coffee mug can make a big difference in the end result. Try different beans, grinds, and additions like froth milk or vanilla. Be patient as you develop the consistency and technique, and before long, you’ll know how to make your perfect cup.

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