How To Use An Espresso Machine? Detailed Guide for Beginners

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Espresso machines range in style and function but they all share the same end result: a concentrated “shot” of coffee with a creamy consistency. 

The goal in pulling a shot of espresso is balance. The more familiar you become with espresso, the better your palate becomes at distinguishing a “good” shot from a “bad” shot.

You want just the right amount of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity to create balance. The “body” or “mouthfeel” should be creamy and thick, not sludgy or thin.

Knowing what espresso should taste like is important to using an espresso machine because every step of the process affects the final result. 

1. Fill The Reservoir

Depending on your machine, the first step may vary. If you are operating a home espresso machine that is not plumbed in, you will need to fill up the reservoir that holds the water. 

If you are operating a commercial machine, you can skip this step, as commercial grade espresso machines are plumbed in with dedicated water lines.

2. Turn On The Machine

Locate the power switch or button on the front panel or along the side on the bottom.

Some machines need a few minutes to “warm-up” after being turned on before pulling a shot. There is likely a “heating” light that will turn off when it’s ready if this is the case. 

3. Grind and Dose Coffee

For espresso, use fine ground coffee. Some grinders have an espresso setting but if yours doesn’t, you’re looking for a grind that resembles a mix of beach sand and powdered sugar.

The grind size of your coffee has a huge effect on the outcome of your espresso. If it’s too coarse, your espresso will be under-extracted and taste sour and sharp.

If it’s too fine, it will be over-extracted and taste bitter and thin. Again, the goal is a balanced shot which means an even extraction all around.

The amount of ground coffee (or the “dose”) that goes in the portafilter’s filter basket also has a significant impact on the outcome of the espresso.

The standard ratio for an espresso recipe is 1:1.5 1: 2.5 meaning whether you’re measuring by volume or weight, generally you want the output to be around double the weight or volume of the input.

In order to monitor this, it’s helpful to use a scale. A good starting place is 20g of coffee in your portafilter to begin.

4. Distribute and Tamp

After your portafilter is filled with coffee grounds, it’s a good practice to make sure the grounds are evenly distributed in the basket.

This is done by knocking the sides of the portafilter with your palm until there’s no longer a mound of grounds but instead a flat, level surface. 

Now it is time to tamp. Tamps can vary in design but they usually have a short handle with a thick, flat bottom. With your hand grasping the handle, set the bottom inside the portafilter and press down while keeping the tamp level.

You don’t want the surface of the bed of coffee to be slanted because during extraction the water will take the path of least resistance and will over extract one side while under extracting the other. 

The amount of pressure you want to apply to the tamp is about 30 pounds. You can use a bathroom scale to get used to how this feels so you can develop the muscle memory for future use.

5. Lock Portafilter Into the Grouphead

To lock the portafilter inside the machine, insert it into the grouphead, turn the handle to the left, push it up, and turn the handle to the right. You should feel it tighten into place like a cap. This takes some getting used to, as every machine is different.

Be careful not to bang the portafilter on the side of the machine or be rough with it when locking it into place. This can cause your grounds to become unsettled in the portafilter and create what is called “channeling.”

When this happens, the water being forced through the bed of coffee during extraction will go through the weaker and unpacked areas more as it follows the path of least resistance, resulting in an uneven extraction and therefore an unbalanced shot of espresso. 

6. Start Extraction

With the coffee ground, dosed, tamped and the portafilter locked into the machine, it is now time to pull the shot!

To start pulling the shot, locate the button or switch that starts and stops the flow of water through your portafilter. Don’t forget to place a cup under your portafilter to catch the espresso being pulled. 

Referring back to the espresso recipe ratio, for 20g of coffee in the portafilter, aim for 40g of output in a 20-30 second window. It’s best to use a scale, but without one simply time the shot, then taste to adjust for the next one.

If the taste is sour and thick, try pulling the shot longer. If it’s bitter and thin, try pulling the shot shorter.

Sometimes it takes a few shots to get it “dialed in.” Remember, ultimately the ratio is just a guideline. The most important part is that it tastes good to you.

7. Steam Milk

Starting with cold milk in your pitcher and the tip of the wand just below the surface of the milk, turn on the steam wand. Keeping the tip just off center, the milk should start swirling around and look like a vortex inside the pitcher. This is how microfoam is made.

When you’ve made enough microfoam and the volume of the milk in the pitcher has noticeably increased, dunk the wand further in the milk to finish heating it up to your desired temperature. 

8. Clean Machine

Keeping the espresso machine clean is an important part of maintaining the life of the machine. If the machine is not cleaned after use, the oils from the coffee will build up and cause future shots to taste bitter, even if you follow every previous step perfectly.

After pulling a shot, discard the spent coffee grounds (or the “puck”). Turn on the water and rinse the portafilter to make sure there are no leftover grounds stuck in the grouphead or inside the portafilter basket.

Doing this often will keep your machine and your espresso in great shape!

Remember that practice makes perfect and there’s a number of ways to make espresso. Try out some of these tips the next time you use an espresso machine and build upon what you discover. In no time you’ll develop your signature ‘way’ of pulling espresso shots!

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Isaiah Ram
Isaiah was a former Starbucks barista partner. He prefers using a Chemex brewer than espresso machine to make his coffee. Why? He believes that a good cup of coffee takes time to make. And if you're looking for special Starbucks secret menu, he's the guys to ask to! Read more about the site here.
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