Save Big Bucks—and Skip the Line at the Coffee Shop—With These Tips for Brewing Espresso at Home
What is espresso?
Espresso is a coffee-brewing method that refers to finely ground coffee that's brewed under pressure. The coffee gets ground into a portafilter basket and is pressed down, or tamped, into a flat 'puck.' An espresso machine then uses pressure to force water at a stable, near-boiling temperature through the coffee grounds, often referred to as 'pulling.'
The result = a shot of espresso. There are two layers to your shot: the crema (the light brown froth on top) and liquid (the dark brown concentrated coffee on bottom). Here you have the aromatic, rich, full-flavored coffee base to all your favorite barista beverages, from cappuccinos and lattes to flat whites, Americanos, and more.
If all this coffee talk is making your mouth water, you're not alone. Espresso is an art form. To figure out the best-ever way to brew it, we went straight to the source: Doug Parkinson, the category manager for De'Longhi, one of the world's top espresso machine manufacturers. He breaks down everything you need to know about being a home barista.
Know your parts
Portafilter: This is the basket that holds the espresso grounds. When locked into the machine, anywhere from nine to 17 bars of pressure will be applied to the coffee to make sure the espresso is extracted correctly.
Tamper: The tamper is what you use to press the grounds into the puck shape required inside the portafilter.
The Knock Box: This is a receptacle for any used coffee grounds. (FYI, coffee grounds have a variety of uses past the coffee cup, such as in compost, fertilizer, and even face scrubs.)
Use freshly ground coffee beans
"A great tasting, authentic espresso always starts with beans you've ground immediately before brewing," says Parkinson. Producing a coffee beverage straight from the bean means the coffee is as fresh as possible every time, prepared with the blend you like. "The grind texture is an important aspect of shot quality: too fine a grind will cause a slow, over-extracted shot that can taste bitter and burnt. Too coarse a grind will result in an under-extracted shot that is weak, watery and tastes sour," he adds.
If you're unsure about your abilities to get a consistent, even espresso grind from your beans, look for an espresso machine that does the grind measuring and timing for you. This will ensure the proper dosage and grind size.
When it comes to choosing your beans, espressos are traditionally made with darker roasted coffee. We recommend trying out a few different styles and origins before deciding which is your favorite. And as an FYI, buying a bag of beans that say they're meant for making espresso isn't necessary.
Weigh out each shot
Make sure that you're measuring (or dosing) each shot out correctly and consistently every time. The best way to do this is by using a kitchen scale. For a double shot, grind between 18 to 21 grams of coffee into your brewer basket.
Nail the technique for tamping
"Tamping is one of the hardest and most inconsistent motions in the brewing process," says Parkinson. Tamping at the right pressure and consistently is fundamental to obtaining perfect results in cup. Be sure to level your dose first, then place the portafilter on a flat surface, and apply pressure downward—just enough to seal the coffee in evenly. Give the tamper a gentle spin to smooth over the grounds for a perfectly even extraction.
Find a machine that will brew at the optimal espresso temperature
Much about perfecting the art of espresso has to do with having the right equipment. For the ideal brewing consistency of the coffee dose water temperature is fundamental. De'Longhi's La Specialista, for instance, has internal technology to ensure a stable water temperature throughout the whole coffee brewing process for the ideal extraction. It also has a built-in grinder, tamper, and hands-free frother that lets you make creamy concoctions like cappuccinos or microfoams (hi, latte art!).