I want to preface this post by saying that there are a million web pages and forums out there that will show you how to make ‘the perfect espresso’. Also, there is much debate about coffee generally, from cafes that won’t serve espresso over ice to those who refer to it as ‘expresso’ to those that serve the completely made up caramel machiatto.
This post bears no relevance to any of that. What I want to do here is show you, the humble domestic coffee machine owner, how to get the best out of your machine. Note that your machine is not my machine and that my methods are not perfect for everyone. This post comes from a tiny, low-tech corridor kitchen and a place of extreme laziness, but also from a girl who cannot live without coffee. Ever.
Skill over gadgetry – A poor tradesman blames his tools
Believe me when I say that it really doesn’t matter what kind of machine you have unless you are drinking ristrettos and short blacks every day (which I am) and grinding your own beans fresh (which I’m not – more on that in a later post). For example, my brother owns a hand-me-down machine that retails now for about $50-$100 and I can get a decent coffee out of it. No worries mate.
Five tips for perfect espresso
To that end, here are my top tips for extracting the best from domestic coffee machines, no matter their quality.
- Whether you grind your beans or buy them ground, make sure they’re ground fine enough. Domestic machines generally require quite a fine grind to ensure a good, even pour.
- To start with, measure and time your shots. 20-30 seconds (ideally 25) for a 30 ml single shot is a good guide.
- Clean your machine regularly, descaling and replacing the water filter as often as needed (your could use filtered water but really? Do you wanna be THAT guy?).
- Use your machine regularly and run some water through it before and after making yourself a coffee.
- Don’t be precious- throw away bitter shots, poorly ground coffee and old beans. This is how your favourite cafe delivers your that perfect cup. Practice and waste are mandatory.
The perfect shot
As I said, you’re aiming for a 25 second, 30ml shot. But more than that, you are aiming for a shot that tastes right to you. Coffee is analogous to wine these days in terms of wankery but I will say this – you don’t want a watery taste nor a very bitter one. This takes a while to work out so even if you’re making cappuccinos or lattes, take a sip of the shot before you add the milk and eventually you’ll get a feel for what you’re after.
It’s visually quite easy to tell when a shot is done regardless of the pressure of the machine. In addition to the length and time of the shot, there is a distinct change in colour that signals the shot is nearly done – from deep brown to a lighter brown. About halfway through the shot, a creamy layer called the crema starts to form on top of the shot which should remain intact for a couple of minutes. When the crema coming out of the machine starts to turn white you’ve gone a touch too far.
Depending on the size of the basket, you need to use around two scoops/tablespoons of coffee and tamp firmly in an even, downward twisting motion. If the shot is too slow tamp softer/grind coarser and if it’s too fast do the opposite. And remember you can always buy different coffee if you don’t like the results you’re getting. Shop around.
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Great post! I cannot live without my espresso!!! I am lucky enough to have a coffee machine (an older Saeco one with a coffee grinder)… it saves me a lot of work! I just bought a milk frother (Sunbeam) which was cheaper than most and I like it a lot… I can now make a decent cappuccino at home! :-)))) My favorite coffee brand is Illy but I often buy Lavazza.
Thanks a lot for your tips, they are really helpful.
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