Contrary to popular belief, there’s many different ways to be an espresso fan — you don’t have to invest in a luxury manual machine and master the art of dialing in the perfect shot. You can try out an automatic or capsule espresso machine, Nespresso machine, or you can even make espresso-like coffee with stovetop makers and other methods. But whichever kind of home barista you’re looking to become, you’ll need to learn the basics of espresso and how to operate the machine of your choice.
Over at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab, we’ve learned a thing or two about brewing espresso and making the perfect coffee drinks through decades of testing espresso machines, coffee grinders, milk frothers, and more. Here’s how to get started on your at-home espresso journey.
How do you make espresso at home?
To make true Italian espresso at home that rivals what you’d get in a coffee shop, you need an espresso machine. These range from manual machines (where you tamp and brew everything yourself) to automatic and capsule machines (where you press a button and the machine does the rest). While coffee experts generally prefer manual machines for the level of control they grant them over their espresso, we found in testing that automatic, super-automatic and capsule machines like the Nespresso VertuoPlus and Breville Barista Pro are the easiest to use for beginners and give consistent results.
If you’re not working with capsules or a machine with a built-in grinder, here's what you’ll need:
A good coffee grinder to get a fine espresso grind. We like the Breville Smart Grinder Pro for espresso because the finest setting produces fine, even results that don’t clump together. Make sure to use quality, dark roast coffee.
A kitchen scale. You'll want to consider having one on hand to weigh your grounds if you’re serious about learning to dial in the perfect shot of espresso.
How to make espresso with an espresso machine
Grind and measure your beans. Using dark roast coffee beans and a quality grinder, grind enough beans to make one or two espresso shots. An average single espresso shot will require between 6 and 8 grams of coffee grounds, although this can be adjusted up or down. For a double shot, about 15 grams. Your grounds should be powdery and fine, so go ahead and use the finest setting on your grinder. If you want to be sure you measured correctly, you can weigh your grounds on a kitchen scale — just make sure to tare out the portafilter first.
Distribute and tamp down your shot. Once you have an amount of grounds in your portafilter that you’re happy with, distribute the grounds evenly with a finger, place the portafilter on the countertop or other flat surface, and then use the tamper to tamp down on the grounds. You’ll then have a compact disk of espresso in the portafilter.
Pull your shot. Before you start, run the machine briefly without a portafilter in place to clear the ground head. Then, lock the portafilter into the machine, position your demitasse glass or other vessel underneath, and start your shot. The espresso should be ready after 25 to 30 seconds, but it will take practice with your specific machine and lots of taste tests to achieve shots to your liking. (Some machines require you to time it manually, while others offer different settings.) The final product shouldn’t be too light or dark in color, shouldn’t taste too acidic or too bitter, and should have a fine layer of caramel-colored crema on top.
Prepare milk if using and enjoy your espresso. If you’re trying to make a latte or other drink with milk, you’ll then need to steam your milk (we’ve included step-by-step milk steaming instructions in our latte how-to). If not, enjoy your espresso as is! Make sure to clean and dry the portafilter, as well as purge and wipe down the milk frothing wand, when you’re done.
Can you make espresso without a machine?
Although technically not true espresso, you can get bold espresso-style coffee using other brewing methods, including single-serve coffee makers like the AeroPress, stovetop coffee makers, and even instant espresso. These are our favorite methods to make espresso at home without a machine:
How to make espresso on the stove with a Moka pot
Also called a stovetop espresso maker, the Moka pot brews strong, espresso-like coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through coffee grounds. Like espresso, the coffee-to-water ratio is about 1:2. It’s a popular and inexpensive option for home brewing. To prepare your coffee:
Fill the lower chamber of the Moka pot with water up to the fill line.
Fill the filter basket with finely ground coffee, making sure it is even but not too compact and brushing away any loose grounds around the edge of the filter basket. Place it into the bottom compartment and screw on the spouted top.
Place the pot on a stove set to medium heat. Remove from heat as soon as you hear a hissing, bubbling sound (after about 5 minutes).
Immediately pour into your vessel of choice.
How to make espresso with an AeroPress
Portable and lightweight, the AeroPress is a relatively new device invented in 2005 that brews coffee by pressing down a plunger to create air pressure, forcing coffee through a filter and into a cup. The AeroPress doesn’t make espresso, but it can brew a strong, flavorful cup that’s closer to espresso than what you’d get from a French press, which requires a much more coarse ground. To use an AeroPress:
Insert a paper filter into the plastic cap before wetting the filter and cap with hot water, then dump out the water.
Twist the filter cap onto the chamber of the AeroPress and place securely over a mug or carafe.
Add medium-to-fine ground coffee into the chamber, then add very hot water and stir.
Insert the plunger and position the spout above your mug. Push down on the plunger gently until plunger reaches the grounds.
How to make espresso with a French Press
While the AeroPress is a better press option for making espresso-like coffee, French press owners can try to make their own version. Keep in mind the French press usually calls for a coarse grind and doesn't generate espresso-level pressure, so this is going to produce weaker coffee than the options mentioned above.
Remove the French press lid and place two tablespoons of medium-fine ground dark roast coffee in the bottom of the glass carafe. (Although fine is ideal for espresso, it can be very difficult to press a French press with fine grounds, and you don't want your coffee to over-extract.)
Splash a small amount of very hot water (around 200°F) onto the coffee grounds in the carafe to bloom. Let the coffee bloom for about 30 seconds, then pour in the rest of the hot water.
Secure the French press lid onto the cylinder with the plunger all the way up.
Allow your espresso to steep for four minutes. You can add more time, but keep in mind your coffee might over-extract.
Slowly press the plunger down with even pressure. When you've pushed the plunger halfway down the cylinder, pull it to the top and plunge again all the way to the bottom.
With the plunger in the bottom position, pour your espresso-like coffee into a mug.
How to make espresso with instant coffee or NesCafe
Like instant coffee, instant espresso is made from brewed coffee that is dehydrated and powdered. If you're craving a cup and don't want to invest in any extra tools, you can pick up instant espresso from a brand like NesCafe and combine a teaspoon of the coffee with 1/4 cup of hot water, stir, and enjoy. Keep in mind that the resulting cup won't taste as rich or strong as true espresso.
How to make espresso with a Keurig
While a Keurig can't produce the pressure necessary to brew espresso, there are a number of "espresso-style" Keurig pods and machines on the market that will give you a stronger and bolder brew than your typical coffee.
If you're married to your K-cups but also want a pod espresso maker like a Nespresso machine, you might consider the Instant Pod, a pod coffee maker and espresso maker from Instant Brands that works with both classic Nespresso pods and K-cups.
Espresso brewing tips to keep in mind
Don't forget to prime. All espresso makers need to be primed before using for the first time or if they haven't been used in more than a month. Priming most often requires running three cycles of clean water through the machine (with no coffee) to remove any dust or particles that may have accumulated.
Use filtered water for the freshest tasting coffee drinks. Some automatic and super automatic machines come with a water hardness strip that allows you to test the hardness of your water. Very hard water should not be used because it could lead to excessive scale build up.
Use dark roast coffee beans for maximum flavor and grind them just before brewing. The finer the coffee grounds, the stronger the flavor. Some espresso machines require making a cup of plain water before brewing to heat the machine.
Use a very fine, even grind. Ideal grind size depends how long your coffee beans are going to be exposed to water. Because espresso is prepared quickly and under high pressure, a very fine grind is necessary to allow the water to flow through at the right rate. Use a burr grinder or other high-performing coffee grinder to grind beans to one of the finest sizes. Your espresso should be finer than sand, but not so powdery it clumps up or looks like dust — it should look something like table salt.
Keep in mind the differences between coffee and espresso. Although they're made of the same components, coffee and espresso are different drinks. Espresso is thicker, creamier, and stronger-tasting than drip coffee because it's made with finer grounds and less water under high pressure. While a single shot of espresso typically measures in at .88 of an ounce, espresso has more caffeine per fluid ounce than drip coffee (between 375 mg and 520 mg per 7.6-ounce cup of espresso, compared to between 95 mg and 165 mg per 7.6-ounce cup of coffee, according to Nespresso).
Skim milk is recommended for frothing because it's the lightest and increases in size the best. Use 2% milk or whole milk if a creamier froth is desired when making a latte or other coffee drinks. Alternative milks, like oat milk or almond milk, may be used for frothing although they will not get as foamy as regular milk.
When frothing milk using a steam wand, fill the cup or included pitcher with milk so at least 1/3 of it is submerged. While keeping it submerged, tip the handle upwards on a slight angle to heat the milk until the outside of the cup feels warm. Then, slowly lower the cup so the tip can skim the top and form bubbles. Less milk with more froth is used for cappuccinos and more milk with less froth is used for lattes. Always wipe the steam wand with a damp cloth after steaming milk to prevent buildup.
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