You don’t have to stop at the café and spend five dollars every morning to get a latte. Learning coveted barista skills and techniques don’t require being behind the bar every day. With this guide, I will help you make some of the best espresso drinks you’ve ever had at home.
Check out Answers to Common Questions, The History of Espresso Machines, and How to Choose an Espresso Machine. These posts will give you some background on the espresso.
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What Equipment Will You Need?
pure water, fresh beans, burr grinder, espresso machine, tamper, pitchers, accessories
The espresso is simple, elegant and doesn’t have to be expensive to create. You will save money by investing in good equipment when you are looking to make espressos at home.
The first thing I want to emphasize is to make sure you use quality ingredients. If you don’t have pure water and fresh beans, don’t try to make it taste good. You can have the most expensive equipment and the best skills in the world, but your results are only going to be as good as the materials you use.
You’ll want to look for a decent grinder. Ground beans are the starting point for every extraction method — espresso, pour-over, drip, cold brew, and more — the investment will pay off in more than just the drink.
Check out our tips for buying your first coffee grinder. You should spend about as much on a grinder as you would on an entry-level espresso machine. Always buy burr grinders that will crush the beans and don’t have blades that will overheat and cut them. If you don’t want to drop much on an automatic grinder, there are good hand grinders on the market.
Next, we will need an espresso machine to build up the pressure and force water through the beans. Hopefully, you’ve seen our guide to choosing an espresso machine and considered our five cheap but good espresso machines. This guide will work for all semi-automatic machines, including the ones you see on the bar at coffee shops. Manual machines are less popular and take considerably more work. Super machines will require you to just press a button.
Most espresso machines will come with a tamper, but it’s usually a promising idea to upgrade right away. The tamper is what helps you pack your coffee grounds into the basket and infuse rich and bold flavors into the water. A barista’s tamper is like a chef’s favorite knife. Get one that fits your basket and feels natural in your hand.
In this guide, I’ll teach you how to steam and froth milk. Almost all semi-automatic espresso machines come with a steam wand attached. Still, if you are planning on making anything requiring milk (flavored lattes to impress your friends, anyone?), you’ll need good steaming pitchers to go with it. These pitchers should be stainless steel with a pointed spout for keeping the froth together and pouring your favorite art designs.
The only other thing you need are accessories to fit your preferences. Consider purchasing some fancy glasses, cozy mugs, a cup warmer, or anything else you think will make your life easier.
The Espresso Process
grind, dose, tamp, pull, troubleshoot, repeat
The size and consistency of your grind might be the most important aspect of creating the best shot of espresso. What this does is control how much of the coffee compounds makes it into the water and then into the cup.
If you’ve been brewing using an Aeropress, French press, or drip machine, you might be used to having a little bit of wiggle room with your grind. These methods tend to be a little more forgiving, but that’s not the case with espresso.
However, this doesn’t mean making espresso is too difficult. If you’re just starting out, I promise that you can be pulling amazing shots in just a few weeks. It might even be a few days depending on how much you get to practice!
The reason grinding for espresso can be tricky is we want a concentrated beverage, but water must pass through the tightly packed beans in the portafilter. If the grind is too large, water will fall through without picking up much flavor. If the grind is too small, water won’t be able to pass through it all.
You want your grind to be fine. Using this method, the coffee beans will contain more surface area to encounter the water, and the water itself will have to be forced through the beans. Every grinder is different, and an eye measurement you can use is looking for it to be something like sugar or table salt. Once you pull your first shot, you’ll know if adjustments need to be made.
A double shot of espresso uses a dose of 14-18 grams of ground beans. I recommend practicing with double shots instead of single shots as they tend to be a little bit easier. They’re what most people will want if you offer to make them lattes, cappuccinos or the espresso itself.
How can you tell when you have 14-18 grams of beans? First, you can use a scale to weigh out your dose from the grinder. If you don’t have a scale, there’s no need to spend money on one.
I use the scoop that came with my Aeropress, which measures 17g. Many espresso machines come with some sort of plastic scoop (sometimes attached to the tamper). You’ll need to figure out how much it holds so you can figure out how much to use.
We can also eyeball the dose as well. Fill your portafilter basket up to the top with ground coffee and level it off with your finger or a flat utensil. After you tamp, you should be able to see the ridge inside the portafilter. That’s the perfect amount.
Tamping is what you do to pack the beans tightly into the basket. Getting a good tamp is an art form. In our article How to Choose an Espresso Machine, I mentioned a barista’s tamper is like a chef’s favorite knife. They may not look like much, but you’ll love the one that works for you.
The traditional guideline for a tampering technique is to hold the portafilter steadily against a flat surface (a tamping mat helps with this but isn’t necessary), position your elbow up at a 90-degree angle, and push down with 30 pounds of pressure. At the end, give it a small twist.
The whole purpose of tamping is to make sure that the extraction is even. You don’t want the water to flow unevenly through the beans. If this happens, the result will be an unbalanced final product and weird taste.
Tamping too loosely, tightly, or unevenly is much less frequently a problem than getting the right grind size and extraction time. If your beans look even and tightly packed, then everything is good there.
Next, you’ll begin pulling the shot! While doing this, you should be monitoring everything closely. What you’re looking for is a volume of about two ounces of espresso extracted in 20-30 seconds. The espresso should be dark, rich, and layered.
Layers are the strongest and most acidic compounds to come out first in the “head”. The middle layer is the “body,” which is where you’ll find the coffee’s sweeter notes. The final layer the is the “crema,” which lends an amazing texture and balancing note of bitterness to the drink.
So you’re pulling the shot, watching the volume closely, and timing everything with a watch or in your head. How do you know when to stop? If you cut off the extraction after a certain number of seconds, you’re probably missing out a well-balanced espresso.
Watch for the distinct layers to show up. The extraction should start as thick concentrations of oils and taper off into a steady flow of the body. You should begin to see that heavenly crema appearing on top. Just when the coffee coming out of your machine starts to “blonde” the espresso in the cup, shut it off.
After you get used to your espresso machine and dialing inconsistent grinds and tamps, you’ll be able to feel when the best exact moment to stop the extraction is.
Okay, you’ve made your first shot of espresso! Hopefully, you took good mental notes of the process and on the taste of your product. The most important part of making espresso is one people often neglect: analyze, reflect, troubleshoot.
Did you obtain two ounces of liquid in less than 20 seconds? Your espresso will probably taste bitter. You might need to grind finer, tamp harder, or use a greater dose.
Did it take longer than 30 seconds or barely come out at all? Loosen up the grind, go easy on the tamp, and check the dose.
If the liquid came out unevenly between the spouts of your espresso machine, tamp more evenly and make sure to polish it off.
Remember, practicing will help you get better. Figure out what you’re doing right and where you could improve. Adjust, practice, and you will quickly become the best barista out of all your friends.
Steaming and Frothing Milk
purge, stretch, steam, swirl, tap, clean, pour // milk choice
Think about the best latte or cappuccino you’ve ever had. The barista calls your name from the scribble on your cup and you walk carefully from the counter to your favorite spot to drink the beverage.
The sweet aromas flood your senses, and when you take that first sip, the microfoam sits in your mouth and distributes the right hint of your favorite flavors. How do we go from the beautiful shot to those cafe-style creations we all love? The secret is the addition of the espresso’s milk.
If you just take your gallon of milk from the fridge and add it to your espresso, it’s not going to be very good. The most basic thing you must do is heat the milk by steaming it. Many drinks will require you to stretch or froth the milk as well. It’s how you get the magical foam in some of the most popular café drinks.
Some espresso machines allow you to pull a shot and steam the milk at the same time. Regardless of whether yours does or doesn’t, I recommend doing each separately when you’re just starting out. This will allow you to focus, test, and adjust each variable more precisely than when your attention is divided.
Brew the espresso first and then steam the milk. The foam will evolve and eventually separate the longer it sits alone in its pitcher.
The first thing you want to do when preparing milk for espresso is to purge the steam wand. What you want to do is eject all the condensation build-up from the last time you used it. Otherwise, it’s just going to inject cold water into your milk. Quickly, turn on the steam and wipe the wand down with a thick towel.
The first time I tried to purge my steam wand, I wiped it down with a very thin paper towel. Needless to say, the thing gets hot! Be careful and use the right equipment.
Once you’ve purged your wand of all the built up condensation, you’re ready to work with the milk. Fill up a stainless-steel pitcher halfway or less with your milk of choice. Various kinds of milk will yield different qualities but all of them will expand. Unless you want hot milk overflowing onto your precious little fingers, don’t overfill it. I always aim for the bottom of where the beaker spout begins inside of the pitcher.
Stretching the milk refers to injecting it with air and making it expand. How exactly you go about this will depend on the drink you’re trying to make. However, the basic process is the same. Submerge the tip of your wand just underneath the surface of the milk and turn on the steam.
You should hear several ripping or hissing sounds, that’s the air going in. If your wand is too high or not fully submerged, you’ll end up with big milk bubbles and it will be not the microfoam we want. If it’s too low, you won’t get much air at all and it will start screaming at you.
For a latte, stretch the milk until it gets somewhere between three-fourths and double its original size. For a cappuccino, you can get away with stretching to triple its size. That’s why you don’t overfill the pitcher.
Once your milk is stretched adequately, drop the wand deeper into the milk. This is the steaming part of the process. The longer you steam, the deeper you will have to progressively lower your wand. With enough practice, you’ll begin to recognize the sweet spot by its sound. It should be something like a relatively quiet rolling. In general, if the milk starts screaming, you’re too deep.
Speaking of rolling, that’s exactly what you want to see as well. It’s important to create a whirlpool effect to evenly distribute all that air you just put into the milk. Hold the pitcher at an angle and move the steam wand to the side. You’ll figure out the best position to create rolling meadows of milk with a few sessions of practice.
Tip for practicing: You don’t have to spend money on milk every time you want to practice steaming and frothing. Add a drop of dish soap to clean water. You’ll thank me later when you don’t feel forced to drink an entire quart of steamed milk.
You may want to know when the milk will be finished steaming. The ideal temperature is between 150-160ºF. At 165ºF, the milk proteins will break apart and take on a horrible flavor and texture.
Something you can do is hold an instant-read thermometer in the milk or get a fancy one that clips onto steaming pitchers. If you have one lying around the kitchen, this can be helpful for the first few times you prepare milk. An easier (though less precise) measure is to hold the palm of your hand around the pitcher while you’re steaming it with the other. Once you can no longer hold it for two seconds, the milk is hot enough.
Soon as you’ve turned off the steam, swirl the milk around and give it a good tap on the counter. This will help you break up any remaining large bubbles and mix all the microfoam up evenly. You want your milk to look more like wet paint than a bubble bath.
For most drinks, it’s common to wait just a few seconds before pouring. For people who prefer a more separated foam (for a magnificent cappuccino, perhaps), wait a little longer. If you feel like doing some experiments, play with the amount of time you let it sit before pouring. You can pour immediately or after 10 seconds, 30 seconds, etc.
While you’re waiting, take a moment to clean the steam wand. All you should do is purge it again and wipe it down with a thick towel. You don’t want crusted milk to stick to your wand.
What’s the best way to pour milk? For starters, don’t miss the cup. I once poured milk all over my bare feet because I wasn’t focused. Other than that, you can progress towards making good latte art. Hold the pitcher decently high above an angled cup and pour so that the milk breaks the surface of the espresso. Gradually lower the pitcher until the frothiest part of the milk sits on top of the espresso crema.
Try your hand at making a tulip, rose, and heart. Those are the easiest ones to make — but they require a lot of practice!
Let’s talk about milk choice. Seasoned baristas love using whole milk. The froth it creates is rich, thick, and creamy. Nonfat or skimmed milk is what I recommend starting off with and it will create foam that’s easier to handle. Although the trade-off will be in the larger bubbles you’ll see.
You won’t be able to create the best microfoam you’ve ever tasted, but you can get close if you practice. 1 percent or 2 percent milk will be somewhere in the middle of whole and skimmed.
Choosing from alternative milk can be a bit tricky as they tend to have less protein. Any type of product like soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk will be fine, but you probably won’t be able to create rich microfoam and latte art. Several companies have combated this problem with “barista blend” versions of your favorite non-lactose milk.
popular recipes, popular flavors
You’ve made the espresso. You’ve made the milk. Now, make it yours. Here’s a simple list of common espresso-based drink recipes:
Doppio – a double shot of espresso
Ristretto – extract a “short” shot of espresso in 20-30 seconds
Lungo – extract a “long” shot of espresso in 20-30 seconds
Americano – add some hot water to espresso
Macchiato – “mark” your espresso with a little-steamed milk or milk foam
Latte – add a double shot of espresso, steamed milk, and a little foam
Breve – like a latte, but with steamed half-and-half and a little milk foam
Cappuccino – one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, one-third foam
Mocha – add chocolate syrup or cocoa powder to frothed milk, espresso, and whipped cream
Cortado – add equal parts espresso and steamed milk milk
Flat White – two parts espresso to one part steamed milk
Espresso and Tonic – add a double shot to the sparkling seltzer water
Chai Tea Latte – add espresso to chai tea or chai syrup with steamed milk
Affogato – technically not a drink, but add a double shot to quality vanilla ice cream
Want more than just the taste of coffee and milk? Some popular flavors to pair with espresso drinks include vanilla, hazelnut, caramel, and almond. Depending on the season, experiment with pumpkin spice, eggnog (try it instead of milk!), gingerbread, and peppermint. Others at specialty shops include rose, lavender, and fruits syrups like orange and raspberry.
Why don’t you show off your new creations? Post a photo on Instagram and tag it with #abeautifultaste to be featured on our page @abeautifultaste.
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